Although this production has been notching up rave reviews elsewhere, it’s a confused and somewhat overblown affair. Yael Farber relocates the play to South Africa in Freedom Day. The party going on outside the house celebrates eighteen years since the first post-apartheid elections rather than Midsummer Eve.
This certainly sets up powerful tensions between underskilled, underpaid servant John and his white employer’s daughter, but the political overtones are unsubtly portrayed. Too often Jean and Julie are reduced to serving as mouthpieces, twisting Strindberg’s characters to turn them into rather crude symbols for their entire races. Indeed, unsubtle is one of the defining characteristics of this production, from the very graphic sex (the realism of which is hindered by the fact that Julie is quite clearly still wearing her white knickers during the act – at least get her a flesh-toned pair!) to the declamatory acting.
As if this play didn’t attract enough accusations of misogyny already, some of the choices made in this adaptation are nothing short of alarming. John is no longer an upwardly mobile valet, engaged to the cook but hoping that Julie will pave his way to the master’s chair. Instead Christine is now his mother and John’s dreams are of South Africa being returned to black ownership rather than personal gain. For a man who roughly deflowers a woman and follows it up with mind games and further acts of sexual violence, he comes out of the story looking rather good. The idea that his actions should escape censure, whether explicit in the play or implicit in the production, as long as they’re for the greater good is deeply problematic. To notice stronger slut-shaming in a production staged in 2012 than you find in a play from 1888 is worrying.
The gender politics of this play are always going to be troublesome, but they’re even more so when Julie herself is portrayed as a two-dimensional stroppy teenager. She flounces from one provocative pose to another, barking orders and showing little of the character’s vulnerability. Robbed of nuance, she becomes simply a male fantasy and then a male nightmare, before conveniently and unambiguously killing herself, leaving John unencumbered. Christine is a rather stereotypical mother figure, concerned only with her family. The most interesting female figure is the white-painted musician who haunts the stage playing various instruments and demonstrating an amazing vocal range.
The world of the play is vividly brought to life, suffused with a warm, slightly stuffy orange glow, spartan furnishings and unsettling contributions from a saxophonist tucked away at the side of the stage. Whatever its flaws as an adaptation, this production is certainly evocative and an audience less averse to the style of acting or less concerned by the gender issues would surely enjoy it.