Poor Miss Julie. It’s not enough that Strindberg’s timeless “heroine” is a tragic victim of her own carnal desires, mental instability and bourgeois hypocrisy; she is also the victim of far too many contemporary playwrights who cannot resist the urge to update and re-interpret this timeless Swedish classic. There have been at least eight different versions (excluding screen, TV and opera adaptations) in the last 20 years or so, the latest being a misguided, truly dismal attempt by Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell for the National Theatre.
Written in 1888, Strindberg’s perennial one-act tragedy was defined by (and criticised for) its naturalism. It was as groundbreaking in its day as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was in 1956. In both plays a kitchen is prominently featured – hence, in the case of Osborne, the description of “kitchen sink” drama.
In the Swedish original, Miss Julie was set during Midsummer’s Eve in the kitchen of a large Swedish estate owned by Julie’s father, a count. In Stenham’s update, we’re in the spacious kitchen of a contemporary London mansion just off Hampstead Heath. What’s being celebrated is Julie’s 33rd birthday, to which several so-called “friends” of hers have been invited.
One of the mansion’s many rooms has been turned into a disco, complete with loud, pulsating disco music and synchronised disco lighting, and for the first five minutes the show morphs into something it has never been before – a musical. But then the scene changes. The noise abates (though not completely; a persistent tension-enhancing electronic pulse is subliminally heard throughout most of the play’s 80 minutes), and we’re in Julie’s kitchen. At this point the play reverts, or should revert, to what it always was – an intimate three-hander. In this version, though, Julie (Vaneesa Kirby) is joined not, as Strindberg intended, by her wealthy father’s valet, but by Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), a strapping, ambitious black immigrant Ghanaian chauffeur who has been ordered by Julie’s absent father to look after the place while he is away.
From the moment Jean opens an expensive bottle of his employer’s Chateau Latour, it is clear he not only has tastes above his station, but opportunistically has his eye on Julie’s money. And although Jean is engaged to the play’s third character, a Brazilian maid called Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira), it takes just one “pagan” dance Julie insists on having with him for the two of them to become sexually smitten. Though Julie basically distrusts men and recently broke off with her boyfriend, she’s fatally attracted to male bodies and in no time servant and mistress are planning to run away together – with catastrophic consequences.
What Jean has not bargained for is Julie’s damaged psyche. She’s hooked on Xanax and cocaine, has alarmingly unsettling mood swings, can be insultingly patronising, and when Jean refuses to allow her to take her pet canary away with them, she drops the bird into a liquidiser and, to audible gasps from the audience, turns the poor creature into a smoothie. “Am I insane?” she asks at one point.
Strindberg, who was a misogynist, admitted in a preface that he had very little time for his “modern” heroine. He considered the play an evolutionary “life and death” survival of the fittest battle in which Julie was seen as an aristocrat on a downward slope and Jean, although the victim of class prejudice, far better at adapting to life’s vicissitudes than she was.
In Yael Farber’s far superior Mies Julie (2012), set in post-apartheid South Africa, the country’s racial situation provided a powerful subtext to the update as well as real tension to the relationship between white master and black servant. Stenham, however, makes nothing of Jean’s Ghanaian origins. Race isn’t an issue at all. Neither is class. So what’s at stake? Immigrant exploitation?
Very little, it turns out. Jean, about whom we know practically nothing, comes across as an unfaithful, opportunistic chancer, while his girlfriend, in her own words, is “a hostage to the situation.” Only in the last five minutes of the play, when she scolds Julie for her selfishness, and for taking away the last vestiges of her dignity, does she make an impression.
Kirby is a fine actress, who, despite her character’s hardships, set-backs and poor, spoilt-little-rich-girl tantrums, comes across as a contrivance rather than a flesh-and-blood person. She’s more a victim of Stenham’s lifeless script than of Julie’s circumstances. Nor was I always able to decipher what she was saying – a problem I also had with Abrefa’s Jean. Blame it, if you like, on the Lyttelton’s acoustics or Tim Scutt’s box-like set. As for the big sex scene between Julie and Jean, you’d need a microscope to detect the chemistry between the two of them.
Cracknell’s direction, clearly inspired by the innovative Ivo van Hove, has some truly bizarre moments, such as the party revellers taking their leave by disappearing into what look like kitchen cupboards. What ever happened to the “naturalism” so integral to the play? Momentum is non-existent, bathos takes over from pathos, and not once did I feel as though the tragedy unfurling was being propelled by forces both inevitable and beyond control. Strindberg must be revolving in his grave.