Although hailed as one of the flagship plays of its time, Strindberg’s Miss Julie is not without its problems in conquering naturalism. Infatuated by Zola in particular and naturalism in general when he wrote the play, Strindberg went on to create a piece of text so scandalous for late 19th century Sweden, it wouldn’t be produced in his home country for nearly a decade. The very notion of a count’s daughter sleeping with a valet was enough to stir people up – especially since the play featured an abundance of power plays: of an aristocrat over a servant, a man over a woman and, though unvoiced and expressed mainly through the play’s setting – a basement kitchen – the dominance of the Count over both of them.
But for all its strengths as a play, Miss Julie features too many emotional u-turns within its naturalistic frame to be in any way believable. Over the course of one night Julie and Jean go through so many changes of heart and mind they stop being convincing – either as honest thoughts or as moves in a complex psychological game.
It’s precisely this naivete of convictions that Frédéric Fisbach deals with throughout his staging of Miss Julie (here given its French title, Mademoiselle Julie), cleverly using it as a starting point for many of his directing decisions. In this contemporary version, Miss Julie is not a twenty something ‘man-hating half-woman’, on the brink of feminism – but a middle aged, radiant adult, still hanging on to her father’s wealth and home. Jean, equally, has reached his forties as a servant; he is no longer a symbol of the rising proletariat, rather a sad figure of someone who has spent his life immune to the options available to him. Together, they are not so much a couple of enthusiastic, socially oppressed people, on the verge of an intimate rebellion, but an unlikely duo: two deluded, self-indulgent and frankly, silly individuals, whose decisions, as much as their words, are quite obviously induced by alcohol. In that context all the inexplicable emotional turmoil of the play becomes an expected consequence of both the characters and the situation.
That’s not to say that Fisbach is condescending towards Miss Julie. On the contrary, he discovers contemporary resonance in the work; by replacing social pressures with depressive inclinations and middle (or upper) class guilt (see Thomas Ostermeier’s Ibsen catalogue). What was originally a strong female character, fighting against social constraints, is transformed into a melancholic and self-destructive figure, bored by both the way others treat her and the financial possibilities always at her disposal. Accordingly, Juliette Binoche has a lot of sympathy but not as much respect for her Miss Julie, keeping the character at bay by balancing raw emotion with a consistent layer of irony. Her partner, Nicolas Bouchaud, takes a more traditional approach, and delivers a linear, stubborn, self involved but ultimately harmless Jean. Despite this slight dissonance in acting styles, both Binoche and Bouchaud take a firm stand in creating a story of characters who can mostly blame themselves for their predicaments.
In carefully transferring the play from 1888 to 2012, and allowing his characters to age, Fisbach has managed to successfully depict a modern world in which many are always hoping someone else will push them over the edge. His (typically French) subtle interpretation is full of clear signs that point to just how self-inflicted this psychological imprisonment is. The stage (by Laurent P. Berger) is vast, allowing both Julie and Jean to get lost in their own thoughts, but the Count’s house is minimal and lifeless. The midsummer party takes place in what looks like a private, in-house club – equipped with both neon lights and tree trunks that get cut off by the ceiling – a visual representation of Jean’s dreams but also the lack of logic that surrounds both characters’ sufferings. The theme tune of this production, pop anthem Beggin’, opens and closes the performance – and in that Fisbach perhaps delivers his initial and final verdict on Miss Julie: like a pop tune, her misery is catchy and hypnotic, but simple and on occasion, bordering on shallow.