FringeReview UK 2016
This Theatre Royal Bath Productions touring revival of Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 Miss Julie, as After Miss Julie directed by Anthony Banks reaches Brighton. Set in the Britain of the 1945 Labour landslide it was first broadcast in 1995. It was revised and staged in 2003. Helen George, Richard Flood, and Amy Cudden are amplified with a stunningly naturalistic kitchen set by Colin Richmond, sound-lit by Max and Ben Ringham down to the wireless.
Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 Miss Julie, as After Miss Julie – set in the Britain of the 1945 Labour landslide – was first broadcast in 1995. It was revised and staged in 2003. This Theatre Royal Bath Productions touring revival, directed by Anthony Banks with a stunningly naturalistic kitchen set by Colin Richmond, reaches Brighton. Helen George, Richard Flood, and Amy Cudden are amplified by noises off, sound-lit by Max and Ben Ringham down to the wireless.
Strindberg’s original shocks in its transgressive sexuality, betrayal and tragedy, not to mention the simmering misogyny easy to read into it. Strindberg continues to shock and refuses to settle into a classic. Marber’s adaptation explores what at first might seem the last time such class and gender tensions might be explored. The original takes place on Midsummer Eve, the night women can claim their lovers. This version is late July 1945 and as we open Christine the maid listens to Atlee’s victory speech. Later her fiancé John refers to snaffled burgundy as like Churchill ‘robust, full bodied – and finished.’ You get a sense of how class is shifting and a huge rift of assumptions are about to cascade into the sea.
This is further enhanced when Miss Julie, daughter of a soon-returning Labour Peer who’s far more patriarchal than that implies – wants to dance with John, and in front of his fiancée too. In the only part of the evening out of the kitchen we watch George – whom many hoped would win Strictly last year – dance more and more erotically out of control with John. This, a beautifully-lit jump out of time takes place as Christine lumbers about below. It’s the only innocence where they can stand the heat and get out of the kitchen too. For the rest we’re pressured in or around it.
In this production there aren’t any invading peasants to mock or parody the couple, but Marber’s brilliant stroke here is to have sounds of drunken merrymaking on Election night hover, which turning ugly – John’s knocked backwards from a fist offstage – hastens seduction. Both characters behave provocatively and George summons the petulance and hauteur necessary to slap John after shamelessly leading him on.
The inevitable sexual denouement begins to unseam from the original, negotiating the fifty-seven years intervening when loss of virginity was hardly a fate worse than death. Using explicit language in a switchback of recriminations the couple verbally re-enact Julie’s violent desires; later John deploys a different sexual violence. Nor is John in all his cock-of-the-walk callousness and charm, quite the ruthless original. He can no longer prove so automatically servile, though Marber tries to suggest he is whilst wearing a certain demob-suit independence; which might not convince everyone.
With less triggers to Julie’s destruction to hand, Marber complicates John, fracturing the relationship with cruelty on his side turning to what seems love and remorse, even tears, and on hers, a psychological unhinging, so when the bells signalling the lord’s return snap John back into servility, it unravels again: there’s a colloquy, a hypnotist’s ritual ordering and parting – even to the bird-killing scene where Julie finds John the right knife (they’re to elope, she can’t take it with her). The clay white bird however so palpably fake when all around is so palpitatingly authentic, elicits laughter from the audience with its head lopped off, as if literally a just-dead-parrot sketch.
The motivation for all this latter psychodrama isn’t quite convincing, but it shifts towards the era’s strangeness in film noir. Richard Flood ably conveys at least John’s hauteur and steely charm.
Christine’s role here too is more fully realised, conscience, common sense, and catalyst. Amy Cudden grounds her role as fully as the set realizes its period so beautifully. Sexually confident but church-going, scorning a Stateside flight and ménage, you can see why she’ll claim what’s hers.
George is finely-tuned to her own edge, though a sophisticated nuance is something she has to reach for then abandon in Marber’s twist of Marnie – there’s more than a sliver of what Hitchcock might have made of this play (he and Strindberg having a horrible amount in common). Certainly she plays all out on occasion, finding little repose.
Even if the rationale in the end doesn’t quite convince, it’s detailed and strange enough to make one question if Marber has after all got it right; and a version which for all its wrenched take on the disturbed, disturbing original, resonates in striking ways over twenty years after it first emerged.