Writer: Polly Stenham (after August Strindberg)
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
If nothing else, Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 work Miss Julie has proved itself to be both durable and malleable. For example, in 2003, Patrick Marber moved the location to rural England and the time to 1945 with his After Miss Julie; more recently, Yaël Farber realised a version of the same play in a steamy modern South Africa with her Mies Julie. Now it is the turn of Polly Stenham, transplanting the drama to the North London suburb of Hampstead in the present day.
The play’s simple premise is that a lady of high birth and wealth becomes entangled with a lowly household servant, leading to (borrowing from another Strindberg title) a dance of death. Different societies behave in different ways and, everywhere, codes of morality, class structures and gender balances shift constantly. On the other hand, it is probable that human nature remains largely unchanged. The recurring fascination with the play comes from examining how Strindberg’s dark vision of the self-destructive side of our nature relates to new settings.
A full five minutes pass in Carrie Cracknell’s production before a word is spoken. Julie’s widowed father is away and she is hosting a wild birthday party, with flashing lights and thumping music. “This is 2018” is being screamed at us at unnecessary length. Gyrating revellers are silhouetted in the background and, below stairs in the basement kitchen, chef Jean and his fiancée Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) are pilfering the booze and nibbles until Julie eventually descends.
The kitchen, spanning the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, could belong to a house that would occupy a large expanse of Hampstead Heath, but the coldness of Tom Scutt’s minimalist design works against the actors’ efforts to generate fire and passion, as does dialogue that is functional more than lyrical and witty only in flippant asides. Choreographed movement and stage effects catch the eye, but, ultimately, they are just as baffling here as in Cracknell’s recent Macbeth at the Young Vic.
Having been lauded for her performance as the young Princess Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby could be cornering the market for spoiled rich girls who fly in the face of convention. However, leaving aside suggestions of type-casting, her Julie is also touched by vulnerability and despair at the hollowness of her parasitic existence. She knows that she is a free spirit only because her father’s money allows her to be. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean is a lightweight, a shallow opportunist aiming to open his own restaurant, who looks at first to be easy prey for Julie.
“If anyone conquered anything, I had you” claims Julie in post-coital triumph, but It is surprising that Stenham finds little more room for modern feminist themes and she even allows Jean to claim moral superiority. Her main assertion is that, in the modern age, class is determined by money alone. In Strindberg’s time, birth as well as wealth, would have been the determining factors and the concept of servitude would have been clear. Now, Jean is a “servant” who is merely using his position as a stepping stone towards his own riches.
19th Century audiences may have gasped in horror when Julie and Jean consummate their relationship, but, nowadays, the likely reaction will be shrugged shoulders and the comment “so why wouldn’t they?”. The passing of time has taken its toll on the impact of Strindberg’s messages, but we are still left wondering what new points Stenham wants to make in their place.
To work properly, all versions of Miss Julie need to be delivered as short, sharp shocks. At under 80 minutes straight through, Stenham’s version is certainly short, but its focus is often blurred and, apart from a scene which is wholly unsuitable for pet lovers, the shock waves that it sends out feel buffered. It may have dropped the word “Miss” from the original’s title, but, sadly, this production is still a miss anyway.
Runs until 8 September 2018 | Image: Richard H Smith