By placing Miss Julie, Strindberg’s 19th century tragedy of infidelity and indulgence, at a sweaty, upmarket house party in London, Polly Stenham has made a classic for today. With a pill-popping, coke-snorting Vanessa Kirby in the title role, this is a naturally captivating piece of theatre for a younger generation.
Opening with an epic rave scene, complete with trippy lasers and a booming 50 Cent soundtrack, most of the action takes place in the kitchen. Even Strindberg knew in the 1880s, all the best action goes down in the kitchen. As honest maid Kristina cleans up after everyone, Julie has her eyes (and thighs) set on Jean, the family driver and Kristina’s fiancée.
What starts as a sultry seduction of Jean leads to his eventual submission to her advances, and their breakdown in the realisation of what they’ve done, and how they can cope with it. Should they stay, should they fly to Cape Verde, and can they be together? The torment becomes too much for a drug-fuelled Julie, who ends up blending her pet parakeet before overdosing.
We experience a full spectrum of emotions during a tour de force performance from Kirby, and despite the swift 80-minute running time, her attention to detail makes it all believable. From the subtle tug on her dress and tilt of a knee, to intoxicated deep chats on the kitchen floor, she makes this chaotic play feel natural.
Carrie Cracknell’s contemporary production is relatable and captivating. It embraces Strindberg’s naturalistic original, with a great pacing. Whereas John – Annie Baker’s three-hour play in the Dorfman last year – was sluggish and ultimately boring in its approach to being natural, Julie is sharp and engaging.
That said, we seem to rattle through the final scenes and Julie’s suicide doesn’t seem either a spur-of-the-moment, high-as-a-kite decision, something she has mulled over in her introverted, depressive state. It’s just a bit… random. While the infidelity and the seduction is something everyone can see in themselves, the final scene lacks the power to feel sorry for her.
That scene does utilise Tom Scutt’s sleek design, which recedes up the Lyttelton stage. Behind panels that slide up and down, there is a clear divide between the kitchen, and the rave, where a relatively bland sex scene takes place on a ladder.
Thalissa Teixeira puts in a solid couple of cameos as Kristina - especially as she slowly erupts after finding the adulterous couple embracing. Eric Kofi Abrefa paints Jean as an initially likeable but ultimately deplorable human.
It’s a production I wish I had when I was younger, and it is pieces of theatre like this that could capture younger audiences that might turn their nose up at a play. We talk about boxset theatre for the Netflix generation in the context of mammoth plays like Potter and Angels, but a snappy, powerful production like this is how we should approach theatre for young people.
Julie is in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre until 8th September, and will be broadcast to cinemas nationwide via National Theatre Live on 6th September.
What the press said...
'Despite the fine, spiky performance from Kirby, who knows Julie can’t be too pleasant, Stenham’s empathetic script is in danger of taking the edge out of the tale. But that’s very much compensated for by Carrie Cracknell’s superlative production.'
Andrzej Lukowski,Time Out (four stars)
'BAFTA winner Vanessa Kirby tops it off supremely. Physically her performance is incredibly open, her hands constantly sweeping over her face or chest, climbing on the table in a floaty dress, almost like she’s dancing.'
Tim Bano, The Stage (four stars)