Aug 28, 2013 Theatre
By Patrick Marber
August 27, 2013
Up close in the small, wonderful space of the upstairs Basement Studio, After Miss Julie is a power-play between three people that comes drenched in equal measure in political fury and emotional trauma. A very good night in the theatre.
August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie was written at the turn of the 20th century and has always been wildly transgressive. It’s a story of upstairs-downstairs desire that insults social mores both with its open sexuality and its trenchant criticism of the inhibitions of class.
A hundred years later, Patrick Marber (the genius who wrote Closer) has produced an updated version, set in England on the evening of the Labour Party’s victory over Winston Churchill in 1945. Class, says the political sentiment of the time, will no longer be allowed to crush human aspiration. But in the scullery of a large country house, that’s completely not true.
Miss Julie (Jodie Hillock) is the daughter of the house, frustrated with her life and a gatecrasher at the servants’ election night party. “My mother made me promise never to be a slave to any man,” she says, but she’s not there to celebrate freedom or some sense of proto-sexual liberation. She wants sex, but the only thing she knows how to do is boss people around.
John (Erroll Shand), her father’s chauffeur, also wants control: he’s rising on the Labour tide and knows it, but he has no idea how to evolve from class certainties, where everyone knows their place, into the modern, more open world. Control – in his private life, because he has none in his employment – remains his way of getting by.
Julie seduces John, with his fiancé Christine (Dena Kennedy) right there and having to cope, and you just know how badly it’s going to end.
Plays like this – talky and intensely naturalistic – work when the chemistry sets things alight, when the staging delivers the story and the relationships, when the subject and themes are big enough and fascinating with it. This one does all three.
Shand is the glue, gliding from one woman to the other, matching Hillock’s increasingly frantic desperation with a quieter but just as terrified desperation of his own, and chillingly losing his bedrock connection with Kennedy’s anguished Christine. You want to keep watching all of them.
Director Cameron Rhodes delivers too. He and designer Andrew Potvin have set the play in the round, which gives it a lovely intimacy and also helps ratchet up the tension, scene by scene.
Rhodes does have a little penchant for playing some of the action right in the corners, which is fine most of the time. But it robs most of the audience of the chance to appreciate an important scene for Christine, when she smokes a cigarette, holding herself together while her world collapses, waiting for John to return from dancing with Miss Julie at the party. Moments of silence are important in plays full of words, but this one was lost.
It’s a small complaint. The story is so gripping, there’s a movie version with Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell coming out next year. But you don’t have to wait. See it now, up close and extremely personal, before the run ends on September 7.
Until September 7.