Patrick Marber has taken Strindberg’s classic play “Miss Julie” and moved it from late 19th century Sweden to mid 20th century London, July 1945 to be precise: the year that Labour won its historic electoral victory. This heightens the audiences’ awareness of the class divide that lies at the heart of Marber’s version, and the aggravating effects this can have upon the even deeper psychological divide that exists between the sexes.
The magical midsummer night’s party that Strindberg creates for his play’s setting has been transformed into a Labour Party Electoral victory celebration, with the servants merrymaking in the barn of the country house in which they are employed as servants. Does this victory mark an upturn in their fortunes, one where the working class will be their former master’s new equals? However, such a turn around in class fortunes are never so simple, and even those who see themselves as the vanguard of a new and freer society are often blind to their own preconceptions.
After Miss Julie was adapted by Marber for television in 1995 and was broadcast on the eve of New Labour’s election victory in 1997, which swept Tony Blair to power after almost two decades of Toryism. Many had great hopes of radical policies that would transform British society for the better, only to be left disappointed with how much remains the same.
Miss Julie hates her father and the privilege position that he holds in society, especially the hypocrisy that allows him to be a Labour Peer even though he despises the working class. Miss Julie fraternisers with the servants and asserts that she views them as her equal, but rather then fraternise she patronises them: she corrects their grammar, asks them to light her cigarettes and expects them to stand up when she enters the room.
The action takes place in the kitchen of a country manor house, meticulously replicated in Bunny Christie’s stage design, that captures the period when servants knew their place belonged downstairs and the master’s upstairs. However, Miss Julie is not one to respect social convention, especially when her father is away and she has had a few drinks too many. She intrudes into the kitchen seeking John, her father’s chauffeur. A sexual game of cat and mouse ensues, as each takes the lead in trying to seduce the other, and yet at each critical moment of seduction, one or the other reverts to their social rank as master or servant. When they do finally succumb to their mutual advances, it is difficult to know who has seduced whom.
The following morning it becomes clear that Miss Julie is troubled by far more than just alcohol. She is an unbalanced individual, whose problematic childhood has left her ill equipped for life. She despises her father, and as a result resents her superior social position, but she is still unable to survive without it and at every moment she delights in reminding John of his inferiority. John, despite his wishes to break free from servant life, is riddled with class-dominated ideas. Even their hasty plan to elope to New York is only a fantasy, one that they both fear to fulfil. Just like Miss Julie’s canary, they remain trapped in their cage and when presented with the opportunity to fulfil their ‘dream’, they instead murder it. It is only Christine, the cook, who is able to deal with reality. Heart broken at discovering John’s infidelity, she still intends to keep him as her fiancé and whilst Miss Julie and John become caught up in a psychotic whirlwind of sadist/masochist emotions, she takes steps that disempowers both of them.
Kelly Reilly’s performance as Miss Julie dominates the play; she is magnetic the moment she walks on stage. Dressed in a scarlet dress and white shoes, she impishly pouts her lips and swivels her hips as she languidly enters the kitchen looking like a cat about to torment its trapped prey.
Richard Coyle’s John, has the air of a defeated man who is willing to dominate those who are emotionally weaker than himself, but is not able to break free from those whom he sees as his social superiors. The Labour election may allow him to dream of equality, but the uncertainties of emancipation is a nightmare that holds him firmly in his position as household servant. Coyle’s performance captures the heart of many a sadistic man’s cruelty, vulnerability and fear.
Helen Baxendale’s Christine is the finishing touch to this marvellous trio. Strong and determined she is willing to accept living with a broken heart and settle for second best rather than waste time feasting upon indigestible fancies.
Marber’s version has breathed new life into Strindberg’s play and shows it is a powerful drama that can still speak to the modern audience.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Magnificent Miss Julie is a triumph." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A terrific evening in the theatre." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Patrick Marber not only sharpens the social context but restores the original's tragic impact." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "An unforgettable night of white-hot theatrical intensity." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "There are real pluses: tension, economy, punch" ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Utterly engrossing. "