Who is “born to obey” in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie?
This searing drama about an aristocratic woman sexually drawn to her father’s valet was immediately banned when it debuted in 1889; the naturalistic focus on class relationships and human sexuality seemingly hit too close to home. For a contemporary audience, Strindberg might stir for a different reason: his unforgiving misogyny.
Understandably, director Emma Jordan prefers to cut this contempt in her staging for Prime Cut Productions, and opts for playwright Patrick Marber’s rethink – a screenplay for the BBC in 1995, adapted for the stage in 2003 – which tries to put the play on a particular course: a Darwinian battle of the classes.
Departing from the circumstances of the original version – Julie alone with servants in her father’s house on a Swedish estate, sexually wakened during a Midsummer festival – and relocating the action to the night of the British Labour Party’s election win in 1945, Marber ushers in the beginnings of a welfare state and the end of the working class’s dependency on the aristocracy. Jordan moves that shift to Fermanagh in Northern Ireland during VE Day, and brings to us a familiar sight: the ‘Big House’ of the Anglo Irish Ascendency, in descent.
That is not to downplay the play’s portrayal of passion. Sarah Bacon’s tasteful and realistic kitchen set grounds desires, especially that of the servant Christine, (a terrific Pauline Hutton) who in a lonely pantomime carries out actions that would otherwise be mundane: laying out her betrothed John’s (Ciaran McMenamin) jacket; the application of lipstick; an enjoyable drag on a cigarette.
When Julie enters, she’s a note above the rest in Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s animated performance. That seems intentional in a staging that prefers almost expressionistic means to depict the sexual struggle. Dwyer Hogg struts fluidly across the scene like a dream, at one point even beckoning McMenamin’s John across the doorway of the kitchen as if it were more than a physical threshold. Made more of symbol than flesh and blood, Julie goes in for a kiss as a blade of moonlight grazes her face through a window in Ciaran Bagnall’s stunning lighting design.
It makes for a suspenseful viewing, the siren-like Julie challenging John’s chauvinism. However, it leaves the tangle between them in the second half seriously ungrounded. Dywer Hogg and McMenamin jolt back and forth between extremes – female masochism; the biblical massacre of a pet bird – to the spluttery laughter of the audience. To be fair, they are disadvantaged; without the setting of the pagan Midsummer festival, Julie’s violent sexual wakening lacks fuel. What Jordan’s production is incapable of accessing is that stirring hysteria.
“You’re still a servant,” reminds Julie, to which John responds: “And you’re a servant’s slut”. Marber’s wicked dialogue suggests that when it comes down to class and gender prejudice, misogyny wins out. That turns Strindberg’s gender politics on its head but leaves inert a play that famously strips its characters down to their nerves.
After Miss Julie is on until 19th March 2016 at Project Arts Centre. Click here for tickets.