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theatre review

Bongile Mantsai is John and Hilda Cronje is Julie in Mies Julie.Murdo Macleod

The sense of impending doom is immediate as you walk into the smoky theatre; suggestions of the calamity to come pulsing through the subtle strains of a musical soundscape. There is a sense even before the start that things are not going to go well in this kitchen.

An older woman identified in the program as Ancestor (the master Xhosa musician Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa Ukhokho), dressed in a white, partly plastic dress, her black face whitened with makeup and her stride slow, makes her way around the stage perimeter, carrying what appears to be either a weapon or an instrument. It's the latter, and her playing and chanting are powerful; she is singing words we can't understand, but we recognize this as a lament.

Then three actors appear onstage, carrying a pitchfork, shovel and sickle. Again, are these farm implements, or weapons? There will be blood, I thought. I was right.

Mies Julie is set in the arid isolation of a farm estate in South Africa's Karoo region, on the night black workers are celebrating 20 years of freedom – or "freedom." They may be partying, but their circumstances are dire: they've been squatting on the farm, and their access to basic necessities such as water has been cut off by the never-seen but ever-looming white estate-owner, who wants them off his land. But where are they to go? And whose land is it anyway?

This adaptation, written and directed by South African playwright/director Yael Farber, is based on August Strindberg's Miss Julie, reconceived and rewritten – set now not in 19th-century Sweden, but in contemporary South Africa – a country about which it has much to say. Farber spent "interminable" summers in the semi-desert region herself as a child and brings it to life in her searing play, having its Canadian premiere at the Cultch in Vancouver, before travelling to Montreal and Toronto. The South African production has been an international sensation – a hit in Edinburgh, London, New York and beyond.

A pleasant night out at the theatre, this is not.

Julie (Hilda Cronje) and John (Bongile Mantsai) were both raised on the farm. Julie is white, the daughter of the landowner. John is black, the son of the cook, Christine (Zoleka Helesi), who was also nanny – substitute mother, really – to Julie. John, in turn, is the favoured servant of Julie's father, who had really wanted a boy, but was saddled with a daughter (and a troubled wife, now dead).

The relationship between John and Julie, percolating through years of childhood, adolescence and now adulthood, is about to boil over on this steamy night. Julie's engagement broken, she is drunk on good wine, isolation and boredom, and is casting about for a fight – or something.

The rest of the intense 90-minute experience plays out like a pendulum, as the power shifts between these two people who love or hate each other. Issues of race, class, rightful land entitlement, physical strength and sex (both gender and the act) are at play. Does John's masculinity even out the power imbalance caused by his status as servant to Julie's family? Then there's sex – is it a more powerful weapon when offered, or withheld?

The dance of wills manifests itself physically with choreography (one early dance sequence, while gorgeously executed, distracted from the building tension) and later, ferocious sex on the kitchen table. Red wine mixes with a variety of bodily fluids to make a mess on the stage, and symbolize a mess in this world.

I suspect that most people going to the theatre are aware that things aren't all hunky-dory in post-apartheid South Africa. Still, this visceral window into how far things have not come in this rural landscape is illuminating and powerful – played out in the sparring match that erupts between John and Julie, with exchanges fired by sexual energy and weighed down by inherited prejudices. Offensive slurs are hurled: He's a kaffir, she's a bitch.

The performances were dynamite. Cronje crackled with a sultry vulnerability – scary and scared, her power at turns fuelled and weakened by desire. Mantsai was astonishing – John's smart but reluctant submission and sweetness building to an ugly, inevitable explosion.

I wish he hadn't been saddled with the stage business of the repeated, increasingly maniacal shining of his master's leather boots. I understand that this was meant to be a symbol of his plight, but, gosh, it was distracting.

(Also distracting was the sometimes bored looking, screen-lit guy operating the music from his laptop; I wish I had had a view instead of the musician who was playing saxophone from the shadows.) The play's telegraphed ending may not come as a great surprise, but it is a shocker nonetheless. There were audible gasps in the theatre the night I was there. Once you recover from its graphic horror, you can contemplate Farber's message about South Africa's future. It seems pretty bleak.

Mies Julie is at the Cultch in Vancouver until April 19, then at Place Des Arts in Montreal April 24 to May 3 and at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto May 6 to 10.