There are some plays that are given a ‘new adaptation’ that is so radically different from the original text that one wonders if the playwright wouldn’t have been better off simply writing a new play, thus being able to claim full credit as the sole author. Then there’s this, Howard Brenton’s ‘new adaptation’ of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. The language may be twenty-first century British English (as opposed to late nineteenth-century Swedish), but the play is allowed to remain in its time and place, with little, if any, attempt to contrive contemporary relevance from a storyline from a previous generation.
The period costumes are credibly impressive. Domestic servants Kristin (Izabella Urbanowicz) and Jean (James Sheldon) – the latter name is the French equivalent of John – attend to Miss Julie (Charlotte Hamblin), referred to in this manner because she is the daughter of their employer, ‘the Earl’. It’s an almost superfluous point, but quite what Julie’s father is the Earl of remains a mystery to me.
Proceedings get off to a painfully slow start. It is not often that watching chores being done proves to be compelling viewing, and this production is no exception. The silences in the dialogue are too long in the opening scene, and might, had it not been for the skilled cast, had put me off from taking much of an interest in anything that happened subsequently. Once the pace picks up, it finally builds to a crescendo. At least it was that way round.
Rather like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Miss Julie is immediately playful and jovial, almost childlike in her interactions, at least to begin with. Later, in the strength of her mixed emotions being poured out, the odd line or two is, perhaps deliberately, difficult to decipher. The state of her pressured mind meant that she was less than fully coherent in any event, but it was still a distraction, albeit a relatively negligible one in the end.
Having got themselves into a pickle, Miss Julie and Jean weigh up their options. This, rather like the opening scene, takes time. An idea of Jean’s provides some comic relief from the sense of foreboding despair that gradually but surely permeates the atmosphere of the room. Whilst Jean does his duties with meticulousness, the production asks questions about what a servant should do when presented with an instruction that, if carried out, would do more harm than good in the long run. Quite rightly, there is no clearly delineated answer.
It’s certainly not a production for the squeamish, though I hasten to add there’s no fake blood here. The sheer melodrama will not appeal to everyone; I personally thought it was slightly overblown, though always commensurate with the character of Miss Julie, indecisive as she is. All three characters are nuanced and well-developed, and while things don’t end well for any of them, the play is a powerful demonstration of how fleeting pleasures can have long-lasting consequences. A welcome revival of an intriguing and intense play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Midsummer’s Eve, Sweden, 1888. A night when the sun doesn’t set. A night of drinking and dancing. A night to break the rules. When Julie finds herself alone on her father’s estate, she gate-crashes the servants’ party. In the sultry heat of that long, light night, she finds herself in a dangerous tryst with her father’s manservant, Jean. A flirtatious game descends into a savage fight for survival.
The production stars Charlotte Hamblin (Downton Abbey; Dry Land – Jermyn Street Theatre), James Sheldon (The Dover Road – Jermyn Street Theatre), Izabella Urbanowicz (After the Dance – Theatre by the Lake).
This is the first staging of Miss Julie in the West End since 1980.
JERMYN STREET THEATRE AND THEATRE BY THE LAKE
The ESCAPE Season
By August Strindberg
In a new adaptation by Howard Brenton
Directed by Tom Littler
Set and costume design: Louie Whitemore
Lighting design: Johanna Town
Music and sound design: Max Pappenheim
Jermyn Street Theatre
Tuesday, 14 November – Saturday, 2 December