RUPTURING AUDIENCES FOR over 130 years, the story of a privileged young woman and her magnetic attraction to a young man employed as her father’s driver, is back on the international boards, as relevant, bloody and direct as ever. Julie, penned by Polly Stenham, draws from the Strindberg work of 1888. It’s a hurtful tale which takes the manners associated with class and explodes them. Everyone loses ultimately but the audience is unequivocally engaged.
Stenham has stripped the original piece down and peppered it with dots of feminist values and graphic moments that would have made Strindberg’s audience faint. It’s contextualised in well-to-do contemporary British society, and the ages of the characters are tweaked slightly. Strindberg described his Miss Julie as being 25 years old; here she is in her mid-thirties. This is significant because it presents very clear shifts in who Julie is and how the trajectory of her life is presented.
Stenham’s Julie (Vanessa Kirby) has returned home after a series of creative failures. She’s the product of too much coddling and not enough emphasis on earning her own keep. She’s well aware of her flaws and her self-medication in various forms which rises smoothly throughout the work attests to this.
Aside from the drunken/drugged slurs to her speech, she’s articulate and sharp and is reflected as an empowered, but ultimately tragic figure. Jean, the servant (Eric Kofi Abrefa), is her corollary and their sexual encounter is harsh and passionate as it is emotionally tough. Is it about romantic love? Is it about a financial ticket out of a horrible menial circumstance? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. But the energy between the two performers feels destructive.
Jean’s historical lust for the master’s daughter reaching back five years, is described with bold directness. They act on it impetuously, in spite of the fact that Jean is practically engaged to the family’s maid, Kristine (Thalissa Teixeira). The discomfort of this broken triangle is cleanly represented, but a little wooden in its presentation.
While Kirby gives the eponymous character appropriate unhinged vulnerability, it’s an interpretation that is so raw that you’re left feeling scarred and incredulous that this lush of a character may still be capable of love. This woman – unlike Yaël Farber’s interpretation of the character in her 2012 work Mies Julie played by Hilda Cronje – has seen a great deal of debauchery and broken dreams. She’s not cowed into believing Jean and his escape route, and she’s too coddled in her support system to have the courage to leave. She’s also cripplingly needy, naive and given to manipulative tactics, to say nothing of cruelly patronising gestures.
Holding onto that comparison, it is Farber’s work that is fiercer, bolder and more memorable in its representation of the inner stories of both characters, highlighting the dichotomy between them with a sharp, unforgettable edges. Much more brazen, Farber tears into the Strindberg text leaving its core, but constructing a searing story around it, with a much younger Julie, who is pegged in her early 20s. Effectively, Farber’s audiences may leave this NTLive production feeling that it is too mannered and genteel.
It is, however, a brilliant set in this work which is the primary reason you need to see it. On the surface, the stage feels almost clinical. That is, until you get to understand that this is the kitchen of the manor house. It’s filled with nifty doors which double as domestic equipment, but penetrate the space which feed into its choreographic strengths. The dynamics of Julie’s birthday party guests infiltrates and permeates the space, and clever use is made of transparency, which lends the stage a depth that feels logical yet sufficiently abstract not to be seen as crudely realist.
- Julie is rewritten by Polly Stenham, based on August Strindberg’s 1888 Miss Julie and is directed by Carrie Cracknell. It features Temitope Ajose-Cutting, El Anthony, Thomasin Gulgec, Vanessa Kirby, Francesca Knight, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Dak Mashava, Michela Meazza, Ana Beatriz Meireles, Ashley Morgan-Davies, Rebecca Omogbehin, Yuyu Rau, Petra Söör and Thalissa Teixeira. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Stuart Earl (music), Tom Scutt (production design), Guy Hoare (lighting), Christopher Shutt (sound), Mogzi Bromley-Morgans (videography), and Ann Yee (movement direction). Release date, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: October 13 2018, for a limited season.