If you’re unfamiliar with it, you could be forgiven for assuming that After Miss Julie was a sequel or a slice of fan-fiction – an exploration of what happens to August Strindberg’s characters if the titular Julie hadn’t committed suicide and run off to manage that inn with Jean, rather like how Brian Friel used to play with Chekhov’s characters.
As it is, Patrick Marber’s script reimagines Strindberg’s naturalistic classic and transports it to 1945 London in the wake of a Labour Party general election landslide (yes, they did used to happen). The other elements remain – the cast of three characters (and the unseen ‘His Lordship’, represented by a pair of shoes which always need cleaning), the study of the class system and the gender politics that uncover more than a whiff of misogyny.
Day One Theatre, in their debut production, have made a smart move by setting their version of After Miss Julie deep in the basement of the Moor Theatre Delicatessen. This cavernous space (formerly the warehouse for Woolworths many years ago) is perfect for recreating the chilly ‘downstairs’ atmosphere of a country house. The clever sound design means we hear the distant thump of a party ‘upstairs’ as Miss Julie, John (anglicised in Marber’s version) and Christine play the power games that come to define their lives.
As you’d expect from Marber, the dialogue is intense, often veering on the unpleasant. The back and forth between John and Julie is hypnotic to watch, and lines like “you’re still a servant’s slut” after the pair have had sex give some idea as to the ferocity of the script.
You have to have a decent trio of actors to properly pull off After Miss Julie – here, John Paul Kubon is excellent as John, effortlessly slipping from charming and devoted to his fiancee to sinisterly angry and he generates great chemistry with Jade Strain’s Miss Julie. Strain also excels, giving a convincing portrait of a lost woman who slowly realises the impossibility of her position. Kate Spivey has less to do as Christine, but exudes her air of quiet dignity and sad resolve beautifully.
Kieran O’Rourke keeps things moving at a cracking pace (clocking in at just 1 hour and 20 minutes) and handles the whip-smart dialogue really well. He’s also adept at the odd memorable set-piece, such as the infamous occasion when John cuts the head off Julie’s pet bird, which produces a few anguished gasps from the audience.
Marber’s script still hits the unnerving right notes that it did on its premiere in 2003, just as the shine was beginning to wear off Tony Blair’s New Labour. It’s a very different world now, but Brexit and the rise of the right-wing in politics means that this powerful study of class politics is as relevant as ever. It’s a canny (and rather brave) choice from Day One Theatre, and one that indicates a bright future ahead for the company.
After Miss Julie was on at Moor Theatre Delicatessen in Sheffield. Click here for more details.