Boot-kissing scene notwithstanding, August Strindberg’s 1888 drama Miss Julie has always kept the battle of the sexes on the emotional plane. Now the tale of an upstairs-downstairs tryst gone terribly wrong is getting physical. In Yael Farber’s South African-set Mies Julie — at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse through Dec. 2 — mistress Julie (Hilda Cronje), an Africaner, and servant John (Bongile Mantsai), a Xhosa man, slap, punch, grab, and throw each other (and themselves) around the set like half-dressed rag dolls. It’s both enthralling and unnerving.
In Farber’s adaptation, it’s Freedom Day in South Africa, yet vestiges of the apartheid era remain: The farm owned by Julie’s father is built on the land of John’s ancestors. (Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913 prohibited ”natives” from owning more than 7.3 percent of the country’s land area.) And though the various Immorality Acts prohibiting sex and mixed marriages between whites and non-whites have long since been repealed, well, Julie and John won’t be making a Benetton ad — or even walking out of the house together — anytime soon, despite their mutual attraction.
Farber’s script contains enough heavy-handed ”storm” references for anyone to realize trouble is brewing. The bucket of blood that John’s mom, Christine (Thoko Ntshinga), drags into the kitchen — don’t ask — makes the point as well. So does the constant presence of a Xhosa ancestor (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa), who hovers around the periphery chanting, playing a bow, or looking generally ghostly. (Presumably she’s one of the people buried under the kitchen floor.) When Cronje’s Julie slinks into the room like a cat in heat, her eyes ablaze with lust and longing, it’s not long before the predator becomes the prey. Who’s the master and who’s the servant?
Judging by the sex, John is the one in control. Also, a word on that: Just because it’s on the table doesn’t mean it’s spontaneous and seductive; it’s raw and graphic and definitely NC-17. And, at the risk of sounding prudish, it’s where I think Farber’s version goes a bit too far. The intensely violent nature of the sex — and the ensuing grisly punishment — almost eclipses the passionate interplay between Cronje and Mantsai. (No spoilers here: It’s no secret that things end badly in Strindberg’s original Miss Julie.) The most memorable image from this production should be their beautifully entwined bodies — not a rusty farming implement. B
(Tickets: StAnnsWarehouse.org or 718-254-8779)