A face and its value. A book and its cover. A gifthorse and its mouth. Sit any of these ‘couples’ together in the audience at The National and you’re risking a repeat of the fight that took place during a preview for this modernised version of Strindberg’s Julie - missing the ‘Miss’ must mean modern. Okay, ignore the gifthorse (what exactly is a gifthorse anyway?) but if you ignore the warnings given by pairing the others, you may expect this 19th century tragedy of the inevitable – a text without a single likeable character, clutched by students of naturalism, gender politics, class and race – to continue 2018’s run of the ‘Bland but Worthy’ NT season...
Give a hearty cheer to welcome back the National Theatre - it's been far too long.
...BUT you’d be wrong. Supremely, surprisingly, and tingly, tummy-turningly, theatre-seat-wettingly wrong. Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a hearty cheer to welcome back the National Theatre – its been far too long without it.
The original Miss Julie pricked at our prejudicial assignation of power and status, by continually shifting the balance during the far from harmless flirtations between the eponymous privileged (white) recently single daughter of the manor ‘Upstairs’ and Jean, the ambitiously grafting (black) soon to be married driver/manservant ‘Downstairs’. And at the sidelines – and sidelined – the powerfully powerless pretend friend and pretend wife, Kristina, seemingly happy just to play her pretend role in her pretend life. Until she can’t.
It’s a game of cat and mouse (and bird) where each player’s obsession with their self is worsened by their delusion of it. You sense this won’t end well!
It’s easy to say now that Strindberg's own views on society were at the extremes of sexist and not much less racist. In the original preface his feelings veer towards hatred as he describes the entire female of the species (through Miss Julie) as “man-hating …stunted…weak and degenerate…(with) her monthly illness” making women unable to ever equal “the one who has the lead (man), neither with education or voting rights”. By comparison, the racism is a much more inherent condescension as Jean is animalised as “a new species…a slave nature (whose) inferiority (is) merely the result of environment”. It's easy to judge the sins of our Father from our seat of modern superiority - but anathema as it may be, can we say that these weren't common views of normality of the time? Can we even say that in a century from now, our own views won't also be considered outdated and imbalanced?
Today we will also recognise Julie’s inability to break the cycle of harmful introspection and lack of purpose that cling to her following her mother’s suicide and her father’s emotional desertion. We would see it as an illness and one that needs support – but she is written entirely devoid of empathy, and so when Jean calls her lucky, privileged even, for having the time to be depressed, it’s not easy to disagree. Whereas Jean’s own manipulation of her desire for fulfilment manifesting as sex is more calculated, rational, though it makes him seem more spoilt than clever.
These changes in views may seem the natural cause for any modernisation and for some, leaving the hateable women, the racist undertones and the disdain for mental illness is inappropriate for 2018. But Polly Stenham hasn’t changed this into a modern version, updated for the issues of the day, she merely serves it up as though the original script was written a year ago - and, perhaps worryingly, it still stands. It’s subtitled "after Strindberg” and is more akin to the current filmic notion of the reboot rather than the remake. So the setting, a London version of mansion, sizeable but soulless, the references and thr delivery are of now – but the manner, the attitudes and the words (for all intents and purposes, before literary experts correct me) remain untouched. It doesn’t always work and at times, swathes of poetry and monologue jar. But the essence – that we watch, we judge, we hate, we find it difficult to empathise – holds together powerfully.
The performances too aren’t without flaw – struggling with this occasional jumping of language style and perhaps focussed too much on the modernity at the cost of the emotional. It’s fair to say that the sexual tension between Jean and Julie is lacking but arguably, true desire or even lust is far from being a real motivator for what happens between them. And Eric Kofi Abrefa’s stoic and cold Jean is at times dangerously close to feeling marked rather than lived.
Bput holding it together is a startlingly powerful performance by Vanessa Kirby as Julie herself – the embodiment of a cocaine-addled internal monologue of unanswered questions that manages to be both vulnerable and arrogant at the same time. She isn’t likeable. But she feels so very very real.
The fact that this may not be perfection only stops it from being a five star review due to the house rules and terms and conditions that must apply. There are moments that are absorbingly visual. There are moments that are purely visceral. There are moments that are so quiet and still that you dare not breathe to break them. In essence, there are moments that are truly theatrical. It’s almost irrelevant whether or not this is your taste, whether or not you ‘enjoy’ it – the point is that it will force you to feel, to opine and to remember. To put it simply, it will do exactly what theatre should and in a way that only theatre can.
Now please, don’t let it be so long next time….