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Miss Julie – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Writer: August Strindberg

Adaptor: Howard Brenton

Director: Tom Littler

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Tense and precariously combustible from the start, the work is a captivating 90 minutes of domestic trouble and class antagonism that leaves one a little breathless.

The version here, a freshly written by Howard Brenton which is directed by his long-time Strindberg collaborator Tom Littler, brings out the claustrophobic atmosphere in the kitchen of the big house and the roiling tensions in each of the three characters perfectly.

Set on a Midsummer’s evening where an Earl’s servants are having a party and the Earl’s daughter has been left alone in the big house by her family – a recipe in any culture for a clash. We are introduced to the valet Jean, his fiancée Kristin and their mistress, Miss Julie, as the day winds to a close and night descends. Early protestations and refusals turn to passionate acceptance from Jean of Miss Julie’s advances and the post-congress consequences mean a world torn apart for each of the three.

The conflict between a young and ambitious man and the aristocratic lady he sleeps with explodes in eloquent and realistic passion. It’s a mark of serious skill that the language only flirts with excess, getting verbose only in times of heightened emotion (such as when Miss Julie unleashes her serious anger at Jean, promising she’d like to “wash my feet in your ribcage, eat your heart, fried”). We can follow real frustrations about class, position, money, sex, lustful love and the romantic kind. We can mark cruelty and stoicism, and feel every emotion crisply.

As Miss Julie, Charlotte Hamblin begins as a selfish, flirtatious girl – before changing utterly into a trembling wreck, exhausted by anger and repeat betrayals not just today, but through her life from men of all kinds. James Sheldon’s Jean is a dislikable, manipulative, selfish (though to a far truer degree than Miss Julie tried to be) and is extremely engaging right until the end when we can start to feel a sliver of sorrow for him.

This drama unfolds in Louie Whitemore’s detailed, highly natural, set and backed by a calming soundscape of birdsong existing just outside the garden doors. Everything reminds us of a life before, and independent of the struggle we are witnessing. This steadfastness in the environment outside the two lovers combined with Kristin’s faith and god derived calmness brings a huge depth to the play, forcing us to consider not only the relationships and histories of the characters and their actions, but question whether they matter anyway.

All in all, it’s dense with beautifully presented ideas, phrasings and performances. Another success for Littler and Brenton in their long-term collaboration.

Runs until 1 June 2019 | Image: Contributed

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