Black/white version of `Miss Julie' puts a spin on Strindberg's 1888 drama

An ominous, even threatening crescendo of African drumbeats heralded a South African version of Strindberg's ``Miss Julie'' at this year's Edinburgh Festival. And then, before the action began, the special bias of this production was sharply defined: Spotlights fell on the two main characters who stood motionless, facing the audience -- Miss Julie, played by Sandra Prinsloo, who is a white Afrikaner actress, and John, played by John Kani, who is a black South African actor. The set, an abstract design of stark black-and-white stripes with a jarringly exaggerated perspective rather obviously underlines this color-confrontation: Apart from the red glow of the cooker, it was about as far from Strindberg's original intention of a naturalistic kitchen as could be visualized.

February of this year saw the first performance in South Africa of this deliberately black/white version of the 1888 Swedish play. It was not the first time the Baxter Theatre at the University of Cape Town had discovered a special relevance to South Africa's racial policies and problems in an established classic. ``Waiting for Godot'' took on an added significance a few years ago when played by black actors.

In terms of Strindberg's 19th-century Sweden, his ``Miss Julie'' looked with shocking frankness at an unthinkable (at least in public) situation: Not merely that a male servant should sleep with the daughter of his aristocratic master, but that his act should be motivated on his part by little more than a calculated desire to climb out of the social mire, and on her part by a wildly impulsive self-debasement whose impossible consequences are foolishly not considered until too late. It is perfectly clear

that on neither side is there any genuinely felt love. All of which is a lot less shocking to the hardened sensibilities of audiences in 1985 than when it was first performed in Strindberg's day.

Except, perhaps, in South Africa. To add the element of racism to Strindberg's original harsh confrontation of sex and class has a relevance in the context of South Africa today that could hardly be in question. It even provoked a deliberately planned white walkout of one-third of one audience there. In Edinburgh, however, the audience reaction, though extremely attentive, was in fact far more detached. What could hardly fail to aggravate complex emotions in a home audience became, in remote Scotland, t oo much a matter of the quality of performance and direction.

To really stir this festival audience, a far stronger engagement was needed with Strindberg's penetrating depiction of real people (who are not just symbols of sex or class -- or race), whose consistency of character is torn apart by personal and social conflicts. It was as though Kani and Prinsloo, under Bobby Heaney's direction, were relying on the mere fact of racial difference to carry the play's point.

As the black cook, Christine, Natie Rula brought to her minor role a solidity and quiet passion which made her moment of confrontation with Miss Julie the most moving touch in the production: When she faces her with ``God is no respecter of persons . . . Yes, that's how it is, Miss Julie.'' There's moral certainty if you want it.

But the protagonists strangely lacked inner cogency. This is needed to carry convincingly their swiftly altering relationship, their love which switches almost instantly to a trapped contempt. Otherwise the audience doesn't feel for either of them, but remains as indifferent as they are, in truth, to each other.

The deliberate attempt here was to make Miss Julie unsympathetic, an empty-headed femme fatale. John comes across as a self-controlled, sensible man who knows he is meant for better things than servitude. Despite hopeless odds he dreams of gaining them. This is fair enough. But the drive of Strindberg's play is actually different: His Miss Julie has at least a streak of naive innocence, of silly, class-fostered ignorance of life, which has to be made credible so that her after-the-event confusion makes some sense and the audience feels some sorrow for her downfall. Stupid, she may be; but she is hardly degenerate before the play even starts.

John on the other hand -- though the cruelty of his servanthood as a condition from birth is accurately captured in this production -- is, in Strindberg's more uneasily balanced original play, callous and impertinent rather than merely down-to-earth, and quite as much to blame for Julia's seduction as she is for his.

If this black/white South African version had stuck to Strindberg's naturalism, and had even been kept in the 19th century (though the removal of its geographical references from Europe to be an unnamed country did work well), it is possible that the play's power might actually have intensified.

After all, it seems scarcely likely that even Edinburgh Festival audiences could claim complete liberation from racial prejudices.

And in South Africa itself, while such a basically unsubtle production succeeded in provoking walkouts, it might have acted more positively at a deep level to trouble consciences or disturb righteous complacency. It would have been fascinating to see if Strindberg's play were still capable of such an essentially artistic -- and nonsuperficial -- relevance.

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