Thursday 22 March 2012

Theatre review: After Miss Julie

If TV period dramas have taught us one thing, it's that 1930s and '40s chauffeurs' primary function was to make themselves available for sex at the lady of the house's whim. And so it is in After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie. Marber makes the play's class relations particularly British by setting the play in a country house in 1945, on the night of Labour's election victory, with the working man and woman looking like they're about to get more of a say in the world. (Thanks to the Beautiful People soundtrack, "Things Can Only Get Better" is on my iPod, which chose to play it on my way home; wrong election, but the right idea.) Patrick Burnier's set makes the audience descend a long staircase to the ground level of the Maria, bringing us to the kitchen of a country house. Most of the staff are upstairs celebrating, and the master of the house is in London on business, but his daughter Miss Julie (Natalie Dormer) has stayed behind. Cook Christine (Polly Frame) has skipped the party though and is in the kitchen making a snack for chauffeur John (Kieran Bew) whom she's "unofficially" engaged to; she's also making a foul-smelling concoction intended to make Julie's lapdog miscarry its puppies.

When the drunken Julie arrives in the kitchen it's not just dog medicine she's after, as she sets out to seduce John, who's been in love with her since they were both children. As well as being spoilt and having a rather romanticised notion of what her relationship with the staff is, there's clues that there's a few traumatic incidents in Julie's past; so the sex that eventually happens is of a violently sadomasochistic nature. Being Strindberg this is largely an evening of melodrama but what most impressed me about Natalie Abrahami's production were the quieter moments, Julie and John's angry flirtation across the long kitchen table is very sexy, while elsewhere there's great tension building up even when there's a single person on stage not doing much, as the story gets progressively darker. (Plus there's a great bit of sleight-of-hand involving a caged pet bird. At least I bloody hope it's sleight-of-hand.)

I enjoyed the performances and the show mostly kept things on the right side of OTT, although Dormer a couple of times went a bit more wild-eyed and mental than I would have liked, and Bew's accent was a bit well-travelled (presumably meant to be Suffolk or thereabouts, it spent a lot of time in America, with occasional trips to Ireland and East London.) But other than that I liked their performances, as well as the bubbling-under fury Frame invests Christine with when she discovers the dalliance. I went with Christopher though, who was a lot less impressed. His immediate reaction was harsh on the actors and the production as a whole (though his louder-than-he-realised disappointment when Bew went offstage to change his clothes instead of stripping onstage suggests there were some things he liked the look of,) but having thought it over a bit he decided he was being unfair and it was really Strindberg and his overwrought style that lay at the heart of what he didn't like. (The reason Christopher wanted to to come to this was that he'd studied the original Miss Julie at school and thought this might make him re-evaluate some of his negative feelings about it, but evidently that wasn't to be.) I, however, thought that though not without its overripe moments, on the whole After Miss Julie was powerful melodrama with some interesting little touches.

On a separate note: Although the Young Vic usually issues printed tickets, for this production only they're using reusable cardboard tickets to save on paper. Meanwhile, more than half of the (overpriced at £3) programme Christopher bought, I think it was about 7 sides of A5, was stuff about the production's environmentally-friendly mission. *FACE. PALM.*

After Miss Julie by Patrick Marber, based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg, is booking until the 14th of April at the Young Vic's Maria.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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