Included in the list of PhDs I Never Wrote (and will never bother to) is one on the topic of female suicides on stage and in literature who were always destined to be suicides, even if the events of the play/novel hadn’t turned out the way they did. If I was serious about this endeavour I’d have to think up a snappier title than that mouthful, but the basic hypothesis is that the women who end up dead at the end of stories often seem like they were heading that way regardless of the chain of plot points that precipitated their self-inflicted ending. Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Juliet would both warrant chapters, being in their own ways isolated, lonely figures dragged around like ragdolls by their older family members.
Polly Stenham’s rewriting of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie casts the title character in a similar light. A thirty-something party girl with a trust fund but limited parental love, Julie (Vanessa Kirby) relives her mother’s suicide repeatedly. Within five minutes of sitting down to talk to Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) she’s giving a monologue on overpowering wretchedness. At another point – far before the final scene – she picks up a small shard of glass or plastic and, trance-like, starts to tickle her own wrist with it.
There’s overlaps here with Anna, the ‘middle’ character in Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide, who similarly fills the void of her mother’s suicide with drinks, drugs, sex and obnoxiousness to the people around her. Like Kate O’Flynn in the Royal Court production of Anatomy, Kirby radiates sadness – like, there’s an art to making so much glitter make-up look like tears.
But whilst Julie is a porous blob of emotion, so many other elements of this adaptation are oddly stifled, or stop just short of really going to the ugliest places that both Strindberg’s original does and Stenham’s resituating of the relationship between the posh, white Julie and her dad’s black driver Jean promises. It would be hard to fault Carrie Cracknell’s crisp, pump-up-the-bass production – it’s as sleek and sexy to look at as an Instagrammed hotel dining room to take pseudo-ironic Afternoon Tea in. Tom Scutt’s set design opens up like a giant mouth, and expands backwards so that the kitchen scenes and the party happening elsewhere in the house can both be visible either consecutively or simultaneously. The surfaces are cold and clinical – in fact, the whole set up is similar to Bunny Christie’s design of People, Places and Things– which works perfectly to suggest the finite un-homeliness of this home.
The problems lie mainly in the central relationship between Julie and Jean. Whilst endless small details are provided about Julie’s existence – her investment in homeopathic remedies whilst secreting Xanax in her purse, for example – Jean is defined in much broader terms. The dialogue written for him clunks at times, and it seems like the character is constructed to fulfil the aim of having a poorer, black male character to contrast with Julie, rather than being given the same amount of nuance as she is.
The fundamental reason behind the pair suddenly having sex also becomes weakened here. Firstly because there’s limited palpable sexual tension between the two performers (even though they both, in general, give very good performances), and secondly because Jean’s relationship with Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) is developed into something obviously loving, sexual and tender. The idea that having just cuddled up close with his girlfriend, Jean would almost immediately head upstairs to shag the brittle and extremely intoxicated Julie just somehow doesn’t ring true.
Focusing solely on the central characters, it would be easy to see this adaptation of Strindberg as something of a failure, one that loses a lot of the bite, snarl and sex. But whilst that’s true, Stenham’s rewriting is fascinating and revolutionary in a different way. For all its sympathy for Julie’s mental health, the character that really matters here is Kristina – the woman normally completely and utterly forgotten. She is the moral lynchpin of this scenario. Stenham gives her a brief backstory – she comes from Brazil where her young son still lives – and, like Jean, parts of her dialogue are a bit on the nose, but it’s in her relationship with Julie that all the real complexity lies – including the idea that Julie sees her as both friend and staff.
The ultimate act of cruelty (from both Julie and Jean) is towards Kristina, who responds with a speech that draws the audience’s attention entirely towards her at the top of the right-hand staircase whilst Julie and Jean wilt in the opposite corner of the room. It’s Kristina who they would happily abandon to runaway together, Kristina who adds preparing dinner for Jean to her endless list of other tasks, Kristina who holds back Julie’s hair, and, ultimately, Kristina who is left to deal with the bodies.
Julie is on until 8 September 2018 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.