Such has been the number of adaptations and revised versions of August Strindberg’s (1849-1912) Miss Julie that have been staged in recent years (for instance, the 2018 National Theatre’s Julie, by Polly Stenham) that it is rather refreshing to come across a more faithful production, presented here by the Acting Gymnasium. In the title character, Sarah Collins portrays her as someone more than a little naïve rather than callous or overly spoiled by her privileged background. Jean (Gabriel Puscas), ‘Manservant to the Count’ – the Count being an off-stage character, the proprietor of the large estate where he and Christine (Clarissa Perks) live and work – tries to ward off Miss Julie’s (ahem) advances.
But his current servant position (the play is set in the nineteenth century) combined with what could be termed as natural desire mean that when Miss Julie wants him to do something, he doesn’t take much persuading, whatever his initial objections may be. How much of the story is about the balance of power, patriarchal structures in society, and status of employment, is left for members of the audience to determine – though it is clear changes are afoot and the old aristocracy will sooner or later give way to more of a meritocracy.
Miss Julie and Jean’s plans for the future, meanwhile, change almost by the minute as they try to continue to keep everything secret from everyone, including Christine, cook to the Count, and the Count himself, whose return, rather like the Second Coming, will definitely happen but it is merely a question of when. The set, perhaps ironically for a play that relies heavily on dialogue, is quite detailed as a working kitchen: the Acting Gymnasium’s resources stretch comfortably to let the food, beer and wine flow freely, and to have a group of merry ‘villagers’ (in the order listed in the show’s programme: Helen Bougas, Mirna Jonaso, Milly Frankhauser, Olesia Joyce, Stephen Stallone, Agnes Panasluk) who provide the production with some lighter relief from the increasingly heavy-laden predicament the main trio find themselves in.
Jean is arguably even more complex a character than Miss Julie, at times warm-hearted and at others almost brutally clinical and calculating. It may not be as explosive as some productions, but this only demonstrates that it is not always necessary to shout at length to have a sufficiently dramatic argument. The impact of the sequence of events is still transfixing, and occasionally the translation used here (from the original Swedish) throws up some unexpected humour – for instance, Jean’s line, “Die? What nonsense! I’m all for starting a hotel” becomes “I’d rather start a hotel than die!”
The internal and external conflicts faced by all three main characters are played out in such a way that elicits a kind of sympathy for them, as opposed to feeling that any of them are getting their just desserts. Escape, one way or another, is their resolve, and in this steadily paced production, the emotional rollercoaster ride turned out to be a worthwhile and absorbing experience.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Set on a balmy midsummer eve, Julie, the daughter of the local aristocrat and recently free from a marriage engagement is feeling wild tonight…!! And Jean, her father’s handsome and dangerous valet, has had his eye on her for sometime.
Directed by Gavin McAlinden
8-23 November 2019