Since her first shocking appearance 130 years ago, Strindberg’s Miss Julie has gone through many incarnations. She has turned up in South Africa in Yaël Farber’s racially charged Mies Julie and in England, 1945, in After Miss Julie by Patrick Marber.
Here in 2018 Polly Stenham’s update shifts Strindberg’s explosive play about class and sex from nineteenth century Sweden to contemporary London. In a mansion off Hampstead Heath. Julie – played by Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) is a damaged rich kid who’s celebrating her 33rd birthday by throwing a thumping rave for her “friends”. There’s an increasingly desperate edge to her search for pleasure as fresh from a breakup, she flings herself into this wild, comfortless cavorting.
Below them, in the chic open plan kitchen, the help immigrants full of dreams and ambition– Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), the family’s Ghanaian chauffeur, and his fiancée Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira), the Brazilian maid – tidy up and hold fort. Kristina is clearly shattered and Jean illicitly samples a bottle of his boss’s Chateau Latour. Then Julie barefoot and high on cocaine/alcohol comes down and hauls John off to the dance (“It’s my birthday, it’s the solstice. Let’s get pagan”), initiating a power game with him that will lead to sex and a savage struggle.
In this charged evening, Kirby’s Julie and Abrefa’s Jean push and pull with both passion and disdain. Kirby’s performance isn’t so far removed from her Princess Margaret (in The Crown), a privileged woman whose family history is riddled with sorrow and who suffers from a sense of restlessness. Kirby offers up a childish helplessness that is underpinned by a deep traumatic experience relating to her mother’s death. Abrefa is striking as Jean naive yet endearing, with a hint of sharp opportunism to him. We follow Julie through her cat-and-mouse game with Jean as she tries to seduce him. Or is he trying to seduce her?
Far into a long dark night of the soul, Julie, who has recently been disappointed in love, chooses to seduce Jean, his protestations rather too quickly giving way to slow motion passion in a rooftop garden.
Teixeira’s Kristina gives an impassioned speech damning Julie not for her betrayal, but for confirming that their relationship is rooted in servitude. Teixeira dazzles in this speech and leads to a superb ending with the stage zooming out into the back of the Lyttelton Theatre.
I would say, the play could have spent much longer as a three-hander interaction between Julie, Jean and Kristina which would have punctured the naïve ideas of the couple’s future together early on but would have also interrogated their motives more fully.
Tom Scutt’s design is bright and slick, the staging is superb with the kitchen and party locations separated by a moving wall and the movement by Anne Yee is a striking visual of excess and greed as the opening section of the play sees the party “come in to the audience” with the stage and lighting making you want to jump on stage and join in the rave! Carrie Cracknell’s direction sees the party goers exit the stage via the cupboards of the kitchen ominously closing them as they leave: a suggestion that debauchery and wickedness hides in the walls of the very house, as in Julie’s ruined mind.
European theatre and theatre history buffs won’t want to miss this adaptation of Strindberg’s masterpiece. Themes of social division and mobility are also particularly resonant to people with awareness of these issues today. During the 80 minute running time I felt both uncomfortable and moved and Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal really brought out Julie’s multi-layered persona of femininity and sexuality.
A slick and well-acted production that shows in the end: pure tragedy, no amount of privilege protects us from death.
The production is both part of the Travelex £15 Season and schedule for the National Theatre Live treatment in hundreds of cinemas worldwide on 6th September 2018.
Runs until 8th September 2018 and tickets are avalaible at the box office or online.