August Strindberg’s work has a tendency to divide audiences – too maudlin, too depressing, often seen as misogynistic. His naturalistic classic Miss Julie remained unperformed for 12 years after it was first written, its study of class structure and sexual politics deemed too shocking for audiences in the late 19th century.
It seems a relevant time to restage Miss Julie; given current debates as to whether the Government are sufficiently in touch with ‘ordinary’ people, to the endless fascination with costume dramas such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, people are as fascinated with class as they’ve ever been, perhaps even more so. In Miss Julie the daughter of a Count embarks on an ill-advised affair with her servant Jean. His fiancée Kristin is also in the house and the gossiping staff mock them. The play unravels over the course of one evening in which the couple’s power struggle takes on epic proportions.
Maxine Peake is mesmerising in the title role, slowly falling apart as mania begins to take hold of her. Her emotional range is impressive, Peake is coyly sexual as things begin and trembling with rage in the final scene. Her delivery, her body language and reaction to the other actors are all perfectly pitched; it’s an extraordinary performance. Her chemistry with Joe Armstrong’s Jean is always believable, and he more than holds his own against her even though Jean is a tricky character to get to grips with: sometimes a loyal servant, sometimes a sneering alpha-male. But though not always sympathetic, Armstrong’s charisma is considerable.
Carla Henry’s Kristin is occasionally in danger of being overshadowed by the lead pair, but her less showy character is equally vital in Strindberg’s play, the moral centre of the piece. Henry also has a real gift for comic timing and the production is often surprisingly funny and warm, thanks to David Eldridge’s excellent update of the text. He manages to stay true to the spirit of the play, while making it accessible to a modern audience.
Sarah Frankcom’s production has its lulls. There’s an over-reliance on silence – there are several moments where nothing much happens (there’s a good five minutes spent concentrating on a silent Kristin simply tidying up) – and some of the symbolism can come across as a bit heavy-handed: a discussion of Julie and Jean’s dreams for example, and Julie’s attachment to her beloved caged bird. A musical interlude in the middle of the play seems strangely out of place.
Yet while it’s not particularly fast-paced, it is compelling, pulling the audience in, giving these flawed characters room to breathe and grow. This is a thought-provoking and entertaining production, with a stunning performance form Peake at its centre.