Jermyn Street Theatre
It takes a brave team to approach a piece as iconic as Strindberg’s Miss Julie. The last production I saw, Yael Farber’s South African adaptation – Mies Julie at the Riverside Studios in 2013 – for me blew every previous incarnation out of the water, so it was with some trepidation that I settled into the Jermyn Street’s cosy theatre to see Howard Brenton’s latest offering. The evening did not disappoint. Brenton’s translation feels unfussy and fresh and all three performances shed new light on these iconic characters. It is a powerhouse production and Tom Littler’s direction ensures every word and silence aches with feeling; it should not be missed.
Howard Brenton has endeavoured to write an “authentic” interpretation, adapted from Agnes Broome’s literal translation from the Swedish. He has reworked the text masterfully capturing all the compulsions, nuances and even humour in Strindberg’s text. However, the directness of the language means that at times the striking metaphors feel a tad on the nose. I feel in the Swedish there is a poetry that blends the more prosaic dialogue seamlessly with the imagery and in this instance it led to the play feeling a lot more English than Scandinavian. However, that’s no bad thing. It’s nice for playwrights to bring something of their world to a translation to ground it in a tangible reality. The only arguable loss is that it is intrinsic to the play that Miss Julie behaves in an un-Swedish way, therefore there must be a Swedish milieu to smash and if there isn’t we lose the culturally shocking impact of her actions. Julie was a character that horrified and revolted Swedish society when first performed so a more authenticly Swedish feel would have helped frame and contextualise her transgression.
Louie Whitemore’s set makes the most of the intimate Jermyn Street space with coppers, icy blues and wisteria trailing from the low roof. There’s even a working hot plate on which a hearty meal is cooked. The world of the play is intelligently expanded through Max Pappenheim’s skilled sound design as midsummer folk songs and the tweeting of birds’ drifts in and out of ear shot. Tom Littler’s direction is fearless; he confidently stretches time and space with complex stagecraft to create a naturalism that almost feels elastic. It is in the perfectly executed domestic scenes that we feel Strindberg’s claustrophobia most acutely.
Desperate not to suffocate in the centre of this starched and ordered world is the whirlwind of Miss Julie, the young aristocrat played with spirit and heart by Charlotte Hamblin. At once despicable and entrancing, she drags the audience and Jean with her into depravity desperate for a kind soul to save her from herself. Hamblin is totally captivating; she snarls and snaps with the airs of a duchess, seduces like a siren, and whimpers like a child with her brittle veneer visibly fracturing before our very eyes. Opposite her is James Sheldon as Jean, the ambitious and magnetic valet. Sheldon is totally convincing in his sensitivity and kindness toward his hard-working fiancé but the chemistry between him and Julie is too much to ignore. Initially he seems the strong caring arms that she needs, but her brutal sexuality brings out a cruelty in him, and he is unable to escape the trappings of class and status he so abhors. Completing this uniformly strong trio is Izabella Urbanowicz, humble and hardworking, her fingers twitching for more work as she busies herself in the compact space. She provides the counterpoint by which we judge Julie. The ice to her fire, a woman grounded in God and honest hard work but with a tongue and mind as sharp when pushed. Urbanowicz embodies the dignity of labour and never lets her Christine become self-pitying or embittered.
This is a striking Julie, awash with spite, distraction and despair. Julie’s railing against her mother’s attempt to raise her as half man, half woman and her consequent conflicted sense of self feels particularly pertinent in this age of gender fluidity. Her anguished cry continues to resonate with anyone who feels at odds with the environment around them. The long run this production has enjoyed in rep at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick before its West End transfer is proof of the vital importance for rep style employment and the opportunities it provides young actors to learn and refine their craft. The sheer power and intensity of this production will not leave you.
Until 2 December 2017