Adapting August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and transposing its setting to England in 1945, Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie is a mean and lean piece of work that amps up the sexual tension of the source material to often exciting effect.
Marber retains Strindberg’s structure but re-imagines the Swedish estate of the original play as an English manor on the night of the Reform Party’s historic landslide victory in 1945. The re-setting is less radical than it may seem, underlining rather than distorting Strindberg’s themes while allowing for more contemporary language.
It also allows for a more contemporary, in-your-face depiction of sexual politics. Sienna Miller, entirely stage-worthy and magnetic, seems especially well-suited to the earliest scenes in the play, which call on her to depict Miss Julie’s carnality and spoiled playfulness. Upon her entrance, the actress radiates an erotic, seductive danger, which is heightened by her deliberate physicality: even the simple cross of her leg creates suspense and drama as she puts the moves on her father’s manservant John (Jonny Lee Miller) in full view of his intended fiancé Christine (Marin Ireland), left to bite her tongue while toiling over the stove. This triangle, formed when the privileged, empowered daughter of the manor leads her father’s servant into temptation, leaves an appropriately bitter aftertaste in this production. We may hear the sounds of the lower classes celebrating political change beyond one wall of Allen Moyer's meticulous set of the servants’ kitchen, but the dictates of the class system will continue to limit the lives of these characters.
Miller is less secure tackling this variation on one of theater’s trickiest classic roles when the power dynamic in the play shifts and Miss Julie is meant to come a bit undone: she doesn’t quite register the desperation of her new-found powerlessness. The last scenes in the brisk one-act fall short—at least as of press date—of credibly rendering full-scale emotional violence.
The other two performances, under Mark Brokaw‘s direction, are consistently successful. Lee Miller brings a palpable, almost animal frustration to his portrayal of John that makes believable the character’s visceral attraction to Miss Julie. You can feel a lifetime of buried, hopeless ambition behind John’s every move. Ireland brings life to what could be a thankless “quiet dignity” role by emphasizing Christine’s intelligence. For the majority of the production, when all three actors are on the same page, After Miss Julie is charged, stimulating theatre.