Patrick Marber’s 1995 retelling of Strindberg’s naturalist classic Miss Julie shifts the play from the suffocating mores of nineteenth century Sweden to an English country house in 1945. It is the night of Labour’s landslide victory, and England has dispensed with Churchill and begun to set aside the memory of war. But if the six years past have brought a kind of grudging equality, with lip-sticked women in munitions factories and class divisions irrelevant at beaches of Dunkirk, there remains a rigid feudal system hardly less ingrained than that of Strindberg’s Sweden.
Down in the stone-flagged kitchen, cook and housekeeper Christine toasts a solitary slice of bread and waits for her fiancé John to return from the party upstairs. He has been commanded to dance with Miss Julie, daughter of the house, who is at first discussed with the kind of exasperated fondness reserved for a pert and pretty child. But when Miss Julie comes downstairs – to Christine’s neat territory of sink and stovetop – there begins a long, painful night in which power of every conceivable kind shifts between the three players.
The potential problem with Strindberg’s play – and with Marber’s – is that of Julie herself. In clumsy hands, she is little more than a drunken flirt, charming enough but lacking any catalytic force. Natalie Dormer’s Miss Julie contains within her satin tea-dress all the anger, desire, wit, loneliness, merriment, melancholy and desperation of the casts of several plays together. In her presence every act or word is scrutinised and offered back transformed into something dangerous or seductive: Christine bristles like a cat, or buttons herself into a Sunday suit and her Presbyterian rectitude; John is laddish and casually flirtatious, or flaring with sudden anger. Julie herself has fixed upon the chauffeur John as the salve to every wound sustained during a neglected childhood and unsatisfactory romance, and though their first skirmish ends in the bedroom it is never clear who has seduced whom.
Dormer has still more presence and eerie beauty than is apparent from her appearances on-screen, and she shape-shifts almost supernaturally between seductress, child and tormentor. Kieran Bew as John never quite matches the power of her performance, but effectively captures the frustration of a man for whom a deeply-ingrained acceptance of the class system is painfully at odds with his sense of self-worth and ambition. Much of the production’s success rests on that elusive quality of chemistry between the leads, and with the single exception of a moment when Marber’s play tips into melodrama, these two left at least one reviewer almost too embarrassed to watch, but unable to look away.
Christine is too often a figure almost of pity, but Polly Frame gives her a quiet and rather beautiful strength that serves as a perfect foil to the sexually-charged chaos unfurling around her. Without her, the various couplings of Julie and John would seem faintly absurd: her almost blind belief in virtue and order is profoundly moving, and her discovery of John’s betrayal is an agonising minute or two almost worth the entrance price alone.
Engagingly directed by Natalie Abrahami, Marber’s recycling of Strindberg is a potent thing, one that still feels fresh, painfully relevant, and utterly compelling.