National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th June 2018
I am not sure if I like Strindberg’s play Miss Julie. The programme notes for this adaptation of the story by Polly Stenham explicitly deals with Strindberg’s rampant misogyny and class hatred. Whilst setting, plot and, to a certain extent, the bare bones of the text, afford plenty of scope for interpretation, at its heart this is an ugly story of a spoilt rich girl who gets legged over by a scheming manipulative uppity servant. She pays the ultimate price. In that respect it is no different from maybe 90% of operas ever written and a whole bunch of classic novels. Woman as victim.
Yet ….. There is normally always something to draw you in to the moral maze here whether the story, as so often, is transposed, as here, or played straight, in the Swedish midsummer of the late C19. Mr Strindberg, despite his rather brutal thinking, standard male fare in that age I suppose, was sharp enough to offer up multiple, and often conflicting, motives for his three characters, including Kristine, the household cook and Jean’s apparent intended, in his desire to define the “naturalistic” in drama. And apparently hating all your characters, and most of what they stand for, does inject buckets of passion into themes and dialogue. So it is no wonder that later dramatists keep returning to the work.
Polly Stenham (see above) is (in)famous for writing three plays about troubled posh kids, her debut written at just 19, That Face, followed by Tusk and No Quarter, then a shift in direction to her take of post colonial guilt in Hotel, and, most recently, the screenplay for Neon Demon. I haven’t seen any of them since they sounded like they, were primed to wind me up. She is posh, was brought up by her rich Dad, opened a gallery and lives in Highgate. You can see why she might want to take on Miss Julie. But some critics love her and director Jeremy Herrrin is a big advocate. So I figured, abandon your prejudice and see for yourself.
Well I have to say that her adaptation both works, and doesn’t work, but overall there is enough here to warrant a viewing. Ms Stenham not unreasonably relocates the action to present day London, specifically Hampstead Heath borders. Julie is having a party for her 33rd birthday. Businessman Dad is absent. Mum’s dead. Her sycophantic, fair weather friends, and Julie herself, are ingesting industrial quantities of drugs and booze. Downstairs in a vast state of the art, Wigmore Street showroom style kitchen, Kristina is tidying up and preparing food for the party.-goers. Julie pops in, looking for and getting, attention from Kristina, and, when he arrives, from Jean, who is the chauffeur waiting for Dad to call from the airport/meeting. Kristina and Jean are black, Julie is white and plainly “out of control”. The dichotomy between Jean, who sees this job as a step on the way to making it big, and Kristina, who is studying law, and the aimless, hedonistic Julie is well observed, and made more pointed through the prism of colour. I was reminded a little of Jamie Lloyd’s production of Genet’s The Maids which similarly drew attention to the uncomfortable way in which the very rich attempt to alleviate their own pain and loneliness by demanding friendship from their “servants” by pretending there is no economic gulf, or transactional relationship, between them.
Tom Scutt’s set divides the luxury downstairs kitchen from the upstairs, equally tasteful, party rooms, and allows for an ensemble to show off their dancing skills against the backdrop of some thumping bass. It doesn’t hide the fact though that this is a drama of intimacy which is lost on the broad Lyttleton stage, especially when, post festivities, Jean and Julie get it on, in full-on expressive, writhing, mime fashion. It is all a bit silly, as was the unfortunate end of the caged bird here, Strindberg’s booming metaphor. Polly Sternham, wisely given the setting, has booted out many of the other crass metaphors, and also understandably downplayed Kristina’s religiosity.
Still the biggest problem for the production is in the transition from the shag to the aftermath of the shag. Easy to understand why Julie would want Jean and why Jean would want Julie. But, in this contemporary setting, it is more difficult to understand why they would go through all the fighting, metaphorical chest-beating, soul-searching and future-plotting that follows the consummation. Surely this Julie wouldn’t really give a f*ck after the f*ck, as it were, even if she could remember it. The whole fall from social grace thing doesn’t really stack up. And Jean’s “I’ve always fancied you from afar when I watched you in the garden”/”this is my economic stepping stone to escape” also rings a little hollow. The gap between them is vast, of course, in so many ways, but the shift from desire to “love/hate, I can’t live with or without you” is just too awkward. The psychological and societal do not collide in the way they should.
Even so …….. once you swallow this, or better still, if you know, and accept, that this is the base material on to which Ms Stenham has grafted her take, then the sight of Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean and, especially, Vanessa Kirby’s Julie, alternately tearing each other apart and then building each other up again, is undeniably captivating. Thalissa Teixeira, who is a magnetic stage presence to rival young Kirby (sooooo good in Robert Icke’s brilliant Vanya), shifts from supportive friend and partner to woman wronged with immense conviction. There is, in all three performances, a strong whiff of the Greek tragedy, not in the material, but in the heightened emotion, augmented by our groovy chorus. In Strindberg’s C19 world the suppressed emotions uncoil slowly. Here they are filling the stage from the off. And the end is suitably in-your-face – no final glimpse of a razor and curtain fall here. Shame. A hotel run by the three of them might have garnered some prize TripAdvisor reviews.
The text might have been a little less colourless, and a little more subtle in places, though I can see this might have jarred with the setting, but in the end, especially in the second half, (this breezes through in just over 80 minutes), I actually quite enjoyed this. Which, given I probably don’t like the play, even if some productions really work (Yael Farber’s Mies Julie being the lodestar crackling, as it did, with apartheid history), and that I wasn’t sure about the central relationship, suggests Ms Sternham and director Carrie Cracknell were on to something. It certainly feels like the audiences, based on the night I went, and the near packed-out houses, agree even if the critics were less forgiving.
I believe Ms Sternham is coming up to her 32nd birthday. Maybe just a quiet night in to celebrate I think..