Writer: August Strindberg
Adaptation: Zinnie Harris
Director: Shilpa T-Hyland
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
When Strindberg’s Miss Julie was first performed in Sweden in 1889 it shocked audiences who may have been expecting the scandalous subject matter, but certainly weren’t expecting the dark psychological exploration that came with it. 130 years later, the play remains a benchmark for its exploration of class, sexuality and psychology. Now relocated to 1920s Scotland in this new production, it loses none of its potency.
In what could almost be an Upstairs Downstairs opening, trusted butler John returns from the Midsomer celebration where striking workers have been dancing and enjoying the evening. He and his wife-to-be, Christine, share gossip over an open bottle of the Lord of the Manor’s wine, knowing that he won’t miss it. The main topic of conversation is Miss Julie, the daughter of the house whose engagement recently came to an end. John’s story of seeing her abusing her now ex-fiancee is matched by Christine’s revelation that Miss Julie’s dog is having puppies, but the father is a border collie from a lower-class background.
It could remain a typical piece about frivolous aristocracy seen through the eyes of the lower orders were it not for Miss Julie herself. Wanting to dance with John during the celebration, she now enters the servant’s quarters and it is clear that there is something between the two of them. But is it just a physical attraction or is the gap in status and the danger that comes with it, that appeals to them?
It seems it’s a mixture of the two, but John’s motives may also be sinister; sleeping with the bosses daughter is not just something to brag about, but also perhaps a victory in a class war, scoring a point over the aristocracy and showing they are no different from him outside of the accident of birth that made one a servant and the other a master.
The aftermath of their night together sees them move from love to hatred and back again as their reasons for sleeping together, the potential consequences of discovery and instincts for self-preservation play out. Lorn Macdonald as John gives a compelling performance as he switches from being seemingly in awe of Julie’s status to denouncing her for doing things that someone of a far lower status would consider too vulgar to consent to. The sense that he is proud of what he got her to do is added to by his dismissiveness towards her.
Julie’s motives are far more complex than straightforward seduction and what she hopes or fears that she will get from it, and they play a greater part in driving the play to its conclusion. Hiftu Quasem perfectly captures the mixture of aloof detachment and deep desires that run through Julie in her performance. Helen Mackay as Christine rounds off the cast. She understands both John and Julie and neither condemns or condones to the point that she loses sight of her own status or what she wants from life.
Zinnie Harris’ adaptation shifts the play perfectly into its new setting and Shilpa T-Hyland’s direction makes it feel like it has always belonged in Scotland.
Runs until 9 March 2019 | Image: Contributed