August Strindberg's famous play 'Miss Julie' (written in 1888) morphs into 'Lady Julia' thanks to a new and innovative translation of the text by brothers James Kenward and Ben Kenward. Though the translators have adapted the setting and renamed characters, they've avoided taking undue liberties with the original. The result is a cracking and crackling piece of drama which is gripping, funny and moving.
It's New Year's Eve in an aristocratic country house. Lady Julia (played by Annabel Topham) is more interested in her father's manservant, John, than in celebrating the New Year with her fellow aristocrats. And it's not exactly surprising because John is a handsome, well-mannered and intelligent man who one suspects could have swathes of women chasing him. But John is already in a relationship with the cook, Christine, a god-fearing woman who slaves to exhaustion at the kitchen stove and knows her place. Brought up on a council estate, John's aspirations to be something better than a mere servant are contrasted with Lady Julia's naivety and her own upbringing at the hands of her mother who encouraged her to be like a man.
Superbly cast and excellently performed, this is a play that works perfectly in an intimate and compact space. In fact the drama at times becomes claustrophobic, particularly in the later scenes when the temperature flares to boiling point.
Gabriella Santinelli's direction is taught, intelligent and highly focused. Intense and demanding though the action is, Ms Santinelli encourages the actors to re-examine their characters and movements for each performance. Though there are obvious dangers with this approach, the edginess that it creates suits the piece perfectly, and allows the actors the freedom to continually work new dimensions into it.
Apart from co-translating the original play, James Kenward also plays manservant John in a finely-honed and convincing performance. Kenward gives us a man who, in spite of his ambitions, recognises that he has 'subservience in his backbone' and though he's managed to acquire a formal manner of speech, isn't able to tear himself from his position as a servant nor his lowly roots.
Annabel Topham is simply first-rate as Lady Julia. Ms Topham has more than a slight resemblance to a young Sarah Furguson, now Duchess of York. When we first meet Lady Julia she's sporting the most enormous pair of sunglasses I have ever seen and has the naïve energy and manner of a spoilt teenager. However, when the stakes are raised her vulnerability is revealed and explodes in a volcano of emotion.
There's great support from Amy Rhodes as the rather ordinary Christine who contrasts perfectly with Julia. And in the middle of the play, Alastair Sims and Lizzie Phillips perform an inventive movement/ dance scene which makes it explicit what is happening, without seeming in any way lewd.
It might seem strange that Strindberg's study of class is still relevant or even interesting today. However, there's no doubt that it is, and this production not only pays the original due reverence by faithfully encapsulating the essence of Strindberg's play, but also enhances it so that a modern audience can appreciate it with clarity. A superbly executed production, highly recommended.