Jessica Wretlind reviews Julie, a new adaptation of Miss Julie by Polly Stenham now playing at the National Theatre.
The original Miss Julie was written in 1888, and the old text casts a poignant reflection of the world that shaped it. At the time, there was a climate of dreadful misogyny and unforgiving class distinction; emphasised by Strindberg’s aim to reveal Julie’s ‘weak and degenerate mind’. He also claimed that ‘Women should be supressed, like barbarians and thieves’, which is achieved in the plot when Miss Julie’s sanity is ultimately conquered by the whims of her servant lover, Jean.
Polly Stenham’s adaptation at The National brings Julie to a modern setting, where the same forces of misogyny and upstairs/downstairs class divide feel somewhat strained. Set within the diverse social fabric of modern London, Stenham relies on new elements to bring relevance to Strindberg’s themes, but the result rather confuses the pallet. Despite strong acting from the whole cast, particularly from The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby, this production implodes in it’s struggle to find new meaning.
In Stenham’s version, Julie is throwing an all-night birthday party at which she idles between wild dancing, coke snorting and the odd tantrum. It’s a believable scene of hedonism, but the drug use undercuts our understanding of her real mental health, giving false reason for her behaviour. Another added element is that both Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and Julie’s maid Kristina (Thalissa Tiexeira), are people of colour. This casting offers a visual signifier of racial hierarchy, but assuming Jean’s position as an economic migrant places his motives in the financial realm. As he consummates his infatuation with Miss Julie (on a literal and metaphorical ladder), he is reduced to an opportunist, as opposed to the more complex, manipulative sadist of Strindberg’s version that revels in Miss Julie’s ruin.
It is hard to believe that Stenham’s Jean harbours the misogyny of Strindberg, as he shows much admiration for his fiancé Kristina who, every bit as attractive as Julie, is on a course of self-improvement by quitting smoking and taking an online course. She has integrity stronger than Julie, who instead seeks improvement through the way people perceive her. With Julie at rock bottom after being recently dumped, she becomes an easy conquest for Jean. The question only begs: Why bother?
Tom Scutt’s design is bright and slick. The posh Hampstead Heath home is sterile in its modernism, but is gradually smeared with the stains of the party in a visual metaphor for Julie’s dishonour. A clever piece of Carrie Cracknell’s direction sees the worn out party guests exit the stage through the cupboards of the kitchen, ominously closing them as they leave: a suggestion that debauchery and wickedness hides in the walls of the very house, as in Julie’s ruined mind. Though at times entertaining and darkly humorous, the climax of the play fails to trigger a real sense of outrage.