Miss Julie, by August Strindberg, adapted by Tessa Hart. Review by Joanna Lally.
The life of Miss Julie, the play and central character, casts its politics in various places. The sexual relations between Miss Julie and her father’s servant John reflect a class struggle that has refused, over more than a century, to die out.
In the past few years we have seen her in Patrick Marber’s reworking, After Miss Julie (revived at the Young Vic in 2012), set in an English country house amid the landslide Labour election in 1945, and again in Yael Farber’s brilliant adaptation Mies Julie, in which Farber interprets the action through the lens of post-apartheid South Africa. And now, in May 2015, as election fever hits most theatre venues across Britain, it is this modern classic by August Strindberg, redressed for contemporary audiences, which forms the first in-house production of The Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. Launched in November 2014, here is a wonderful new venture and addition to London’s pub theatre circuit: led by Artistic Director Tessa Hart, this kind of venue proves what can be accomplished in the city’s smaller performance spaces, and in defiance of contested arts funding. Hart also adapts and directs this production of Miss Julie for The Bread and Roses Theatre Company’s debut.
The timing is apt: Strindberg’s tragedy has always posed difficult questions and ideas about freedom – from class, gender, social convention and even family history – but also nudges audiences to consider the possibility of coalition: who out of these characters can work together in order to create a believable future? Hart’s adaptation, like those of her predecessors, removes the action from its original location – the kitchen of a Swedish Count’s country house in the late-1800s – but it is uncertain exactly where it now lands. It is apparently the present day, as indicated by the travel magazines that John peruses, yet the sparse domestic space of the stage feels dated against other contemporary trappings. The household, however, is still governed by Julie’s aristocratic father and it is still Midsummer’s Eve, as in Strindberg’s play. The visual minimalism, and intimacy of The Bread and Roses, allows for a closer study of the characters of Julie (Rebecca Pryle) and John (Adam Alexander). The risks implicated for them both are strongly conveyed in Pryle and Alexander’s performances. Pryle, in particular, lends feminine authority to Julie; she appears to be in control until perhaps the final moments of the play, where not only John, but also her situation, serves to overtake her. Hart notes in the programme that Miss Julie often invites a problematic approach through its misogynistic outlook. This is not helped by Strindberg’s note in the 1888 preface, in which he describes his heroine as a ‘man-hating half-woman […] a stunted form of human being.’ Nevertheless Strindberg was, as he argued was the purpose of theatre, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of his time. Against a backdrop of prejudice he at least allows Miss Julie to speak out against her poor influences, as he refers to them, and this opportunity for autonomy is worth greater exploration.
One of the key motifs in this production is a clever refrain of the Beatles’ song ‘Blackbird’. The tune is introduced by Christine (Grace Dunne), the kitchen cook, and the third party to her fiancé John’s transgressions with their mistress. Like the blackbird, her song perhaps flies highest of all three, and in this version of the play, it feels as if it is this character of a hard-working woman who suffers most of all as a result of John and Julie’s irresponsibility. Dunne’s performance appropriately soars in response before she exits for church, leaving them to their selfish actions. Whereas Strindberg’s text provides the painfully definite consequences of Miss Julie’s misbehaviour, Hart instead answers with a more ambiguous set of options for Julie and John at the end of the play.
Miss Julie runs until 16th May 2015 at The Bread and Roses Theatre, Manor Street, Clapham. More information and ticket bookings can be found here.