Lady J – Waterloo East Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Lewis Webb, based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg

Director: Christina James

August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, set in fin de siècle Sweden, is relocated to a modern Scottish university in Lewis Webb’s adaptation. Julia is the daughter of the university provost, who on the night of the university’s Burns Night celebration enters into a dangerous game of flirtation with Jock, her father’s butler.

While the class divisions that drive Strindberg’s original may have lessened in the century and a quarter since its first staging, they are still present in society. So a contemporary setting for the play has the potential to make sense.

Webb’s script makes a fair stab at updating the scenario, as long as one doesn’t look too closely at some of the finer details. Joshua Urquhart’s Jock is a charismatic figure, aware of the effect he is having upon Marianne James’ Lady Julia, while sneakily dismissive of the family’s other servant, Kirsten (Anna Georgina) with whom he is supposed to be in a relationship.

The initial manner in which James and Urquhart circle one another provides indications of the characters’ internal and external conflicts. James’s Julia flirts with danger as much as she does with Jock, an act of drunken rebellion against her absent father as much as sexual desire. In return, Urquhart is knowingly arch, partaking in the game the pair are playing.

It is as things get more serious that the production starts to struggle. Julia oscillates between haughty, flirty and manic, the latter mood becoming increasingly dominant. Jock responds similarly, varying from dismissive to aggressively controlling. The mood changes come thick, fast and not particularly believably, the extremes of behaviour straining believability.

That is compounded by the characters’ sense, derived from Strindberg’s original, that the avenues available that proceed out of their current situation are extremely limited. The more the characters lament, the more the dialogue seems to be receding back into a landscape of 19th-century Swedish fatalism.

With the extremities of her performance, James limits the amount of sympathies one can toss Julia’s way; from spoilt brat who knows how to exploit the control she has over her father’s household staff to a mentally fractured, tremulous woman, it feels as if she is every stereotype that the character’s mother (in this scenario, a fearsome feminist) would have rejected.

When bringing any classic work into a modern setting, one must ask what it says about today’s society that the original said about its own. Lady J does not ask such questions, and one feels if it did it would not have any answers. A straightforward production of Miss Julie might allow us to draw modern parallels in ways that this contemporary adaptation denies us.

Continues until 26 November 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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