WORDS: CHARLIE NEWMAN
FEATURE IMAGE: RICHARD H SMITH
Playwright Polly Stenham takes an adventurous stab at yet another adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1889 classic Miss Julie at the National in the Lyttleton theatre. Stenham’s version holds a new lease of life, dropping the ‘Miss’, she has pushed it forward to contemporary times. Whilst Strindberg’s knife edge tension and heart pumping danger has been dampened, nonetheless the central themes of class, racism, and guilt are still deeply embedded within the plot. The scandal of anti heroine Julie, played by Vanessa Kirby, sleeping with her fathers black chauffeur Jean, played by Eric Kofi Abrefa, may no longer hold such slander, but we can only see this as a positive reflection of ours times.
Whilst we lose some of the drama, we gain greater focus on the devastating effects of neglected trauma and mental health; a most poignant narrative today. Kirby of course encapsulates the role of wild child, rich girl effortlessly, after all it’s a character she won awards for in her portrayal of Princess Margaret in the Netflix series ‘The Crown’. Whilst a comparison between Kirby’s two roles would be unfair, and tired she must be of it, ‘Julies’ character was undoubtedly lacking in depth. This is no detriment to Kirby’s performance, rather the script-even a BAFTA winning actress can’t make throwaway and at times cringe lines profound. The dark humour trickling throughout the play was it’s saving grace. To make an audience laugh whilst simultaneously approaching uncomfortable subjects is a tricky path to tread, but the cast did it with ease. The comedy also gave an additional likeability factor to all of the characters. We wanted to hate Jean’s opportunism, his infidelity to Kristina, Julie’s maid/ housekeeper played brilliantly by Thalissa Teixeira (her speech when she witnesses the affair brought the audience to total stand still) to hate Julies selfishness and self indulgence, but the laughter only made them relatable. We took pity on them, on the inevitable fallible nature of humanity.
All the drama was not lost though, designer Tom Scutt’s dramatic scale of a plush, minimalist house in Hampstead Heath was slick, a clear dismal of Strindberg’s small stage, small audience aesthetic. Paired with lighting designer, Guy Hoare’s vivid, splashes of colour, we were drowned in the hedonism of the party. Movement director, Ann Yee’s ensemble routine was a bit too dance school for me, a maddening individual rush of movement as a collective would have been more effective, although when they coordinated, crawling in slow motion to the front of the stage, dropping soil was extremely poignant. A premonition of Julie’s death and death of the equality dream. The death itself was all too quick, as soon as she was discovered, suddenly the fourth wall was destroyed and all the actors flooded to the front of the stage to receive their applause. A pause for us to breathe and take in the tragedy would have been much appreciated.
Director Carrie Cracknell led us through 80 seamless minutes of one evening, one party, and the devastating consequences of it. To all Strindberg super fans, perhaps this is not for you. This is an adaption, a reflection on our times, so I dare you to go a little off piste and experience this new, high energy performance. A jarring and beautiful production, portraying the challenges of existence from the 1800s, all the way to the 21st century.