Thursday, 21 June 2018

Theatre review: Julie

As Vanessa Kirby’s Julie first walks onto the stage rubbing cocaine into her gums I couldn’t help thinking: You can recast Princess Margaret, but you can’t shake her off that easily. Polly Stenham has updated Strindberg’s Miss Julie to the present day, and the spoilt daughter of a millionaire who hasn’t come home to celebrate her 33rd birthday with her. A lot of people she barely knows have turned up though, and on Tom Scutt’s split-level set a party rages in the background while the quieter drama plays out in the kitchen downstage, where her father’s chauffeur Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and housekeeper Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) are tidying up. Julie herself keeps wandering listlessly in to get away from her own birthday party, and to avoid the hangers-on upstairs. Jean and Kristina have recently got engaged, but Julie’s been ditched by her own fiancé, and is looking for someone to fill the void. The emotional void, not her vagina. Although also her vagina.

Julie’s flirtation with Jean becomes more aggressive until she finally seduces him; the next morning, they make wild plans to run away together.

Versions of Strindberg’s play come along very frequently, often with the setting changed from its origins in 1888 Sweden, and visually this most resembles 2012’s French production Mademoiselle Julie, which also brought the action to the present day. In a crucial way Stenham’s adaptation improves on that one: Miss Julie is very much about class, and it’s the fact of the fling with one of the servants going wrong that’s enough to bring about the tragic conclusion. Stenham plays this down, keeping the idea that Julie and Jean’s different situations bring different pressures, and including a hint of racial tension (the casting isn’t colour-blind, Jean and Kristina are explicitly black in the dialogue) but making obvious a lot of other pressures on Julie’s mental state, and not suggesting the class difference alone is the main factor.

But if Julie doesn’t hit the snags I’ve seen in past modernisations of the play, that doesn’t make it a success overall. To be honest I’ve rarely cared about the title character’s existential crisis in the early hours of the morning, and this is no exception; and there’s a particularly cold element to Kirby and Abrefa’s Julie and Jean that makes their relationship hard to buy. The decision to play their conversation about opening a restaurant together as literal rather than an idle fantasy only highlights their lack of credibility as a couple.

Carrie Cracknell’s production is what largely saves the evening, though, the party in the background allowing for a lot of movement work that sometimes veers right over into the surreal (the women climbing into dishwashers and disappearing must be some kind of commentary on traditional female roles in the kitchen, but I wouldn’t want to venture anything more specific than that.) There’s a couple of little moments that really stand out: Kirby being carried into the party on a mattress like she’s riding a horse, falling off it and dropping to her feet with an expression of bored resignation says as much about Julie as her dialogue later does. Cracknell finds a life on stage that Stenham hasn’t quite put on the page, and it stops the play from being a washout, without disguising the fact that it’s flawed.

Not that any level of criticism really matters here: Polly Stenham, the Poet Laureate of Incontinence, has actually written a play in which nobody wets themselves, but she couldn't let the evening go by entirely without a coup de théâtre, and so Julie is going to be forever remembered as the budgie-in-a-blender play.

Julie by Polly Stenham, based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg, is booking in repertory until the 8th of September at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

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