FringeReview UK 2019
Coupled with Creditors, also from 1888, Miss Julie transfers to Jermyn Street Theatre in the acclaimed Theatre by the Lake. Directed by Tom Littler, designed by Louie Whitemore, lit by Johanna Town with sound and composition by Max Pappenheim.
Sometimes radical can mean back to roots. After Patrick Marber’s ingenious relocation of Miss Julie to Britain on the eve of Labour’s 1945 landslide, or Polly Stenham’s Julie, situated (rightly) in her niche environment, Howard Brenton Miss Julie is fidelity itself; not just because it’s set in period.
Coupled with Creditors, also from 1888, both directed by Tom Littler, it transfers to Jermyn Street Theatre in the acclaimed Theatre by the Lake; and with two of the cast in common. Brenton’s version – worked from Agnes Broomé’s literal translation – is achingly close to Strindberg’s ferocious dissection of real transgression on an Midsummer’s Eve where licence to servants perpetuates the hierarchy that threatens anything more. On occasions where he modernizes, as in for instance Jean’s ’Er – can’t do that one’ to Julie’s quizzing, or ‘Thanks for the food. It was great’ to Kristin, it’s to aid the colloquial original.
This excellent production follows every ripple and twitch of plot, all Strindberg’s febrile switchbacks where many can be smoothed out. It’s as if a thick dark varnish has been removed from a portrait revealing a shockingly tactile flesh. It’s thrilling, with an inevitability I’ve never seen, a fresh ratcheting-up of its form invoking Greek tragedy.
That’s helped by Louie Whitemore’s design: A kitchen with a nod to early 20th century blond wood straight out of the Larssons in the long table, but otherwise against white fittings a black stove with lovingly sourced copper pots and utensils, soon sizzling with liver, a dateless old white sink, and along a navy blue wall at the back, various glass jars on shelves. It’s a tight set that tantalisingly flirts with freedom with, stage-right, French windows opening to lighting by Johanna Town (changing from yellow to rose to stark white with the day) with sound and composition by Max Pappenheim: the peasants Strindberg asks for are neatly – once or twice raucously – suggested offstage.
And period costumes speak in the change or removal of a livery jacket to civilian one, the unbuttoning of a waistcoat, the donning of a hat never worn except when leaving for good; the sudden apparition of Miss Julie in full light olive dress to make anything possible.
Dorothea Mayer-Bennett’s Kristin throughout owns an agency and sexual ownership we don’t normally see. Also in Creditors, (like James Sheldon who plays the Earl’s valet Jean), she refuses the also-ran. ‘That stupid thing with Jean. I don’t care a fig about that but… if you try to trick him into running away… I’ll stop you.’ She delivers too the coup-de-grace: ‘I’ll tell the groom not to let any horses be taken out.’ she invokes God’s grace where pointedly ‘the least shall be greatest.’ Kristin’s no longer a simple lightning-rod of prejudice and class order, with her triumphant ‘has the Earl’s cook ever gone with a stable boy, or the pig man?’
It’s this precision of Strindberg’ earlier naturalistic phase than can get overlooked, losing force by broad strokes of the extreme: Strindberg’s intensity is like a scalpel carefully probing a nerve, the wince not the scream.
Sheldon’s Jean mixes a sneer of command with a twitch of servility when the bell strikes: indeed he’s literally frozen by it at the end. It’s far cry from his uncorking stolen wine from the Earl’s cellar, his love of fine living – in this production Jean flourishes a swirl, demands ‘One of the high-stemmed goblets, this wine demands respect’ then tastes the vintage pronouncing: ‘Excellent. Great depth, but a little too cold.’
With Sheldon you can see – convincingly – Jean’s mastery of several languages makes him a natural proprietor of a hotel, should he get the chance: the pipe-dream he later proposes to Julie. Someone who aspires to another class, crucially not overthrowing it. Sheldon relishes this binary Jean, someone who resists Julie’s danger, and in this production is provoked slowly to something he then leaps to. His suave containment makes his outbursts the more shocking, his android-like jerk to servility dismayingly real.
From the outset Miss Julie’s presence is signalled by Jean’s reporting her overstepping the bounds by cavorting with the gamekeeper. It suggests that at twenty-five she’s exploding with frustration – personal as well as sexual – and the legacy of her mother’s ferocious actions transmitting themselves. Unlike Kristin and Jean, she lacks even a limited agency, since the only people she’s permitted are titled pauvre types one of whom Jean reports with Julie ‘making him jump over the riding crop’, though deems him handsome enough. That was the fiancé dismissed.
Charlotte Hamblin’s Miss Julie is volatile and particularly mercurial. That might suggests someone who loses her aristocratic poise. But Hamblin pitches between obnoxious entitlement and trembling sexual need with a vulnerability that’s stripped away literally when she later reappears in just a white shirt and bare legs. It’s sexy but flinchingly naked: you long for her to stop playing with Jean’s kisses and escape. It’s there even in her own transgressive nursing early on when she removes dust from Jean’s eye. ‘Keep still’ (She slaps his hand), adding ’Do as you’re told! Oh, you’re trembling, bug man that you are – (She feels his bicep) Such arms!’ Kristin’s present as Jean finally plays Julie back, asleep. There’s more than one transgression, one class betrayal.
What Hamblin brings is an edge of cruelty that can flip to tenderness, a capacity to remove layers of privilege slowly – sometimes it shrugs back when Jean oversteps her sense of what she should; but then sloughs off. The detail of her distress, her explosions, her collapses are breathtaking.
This isn’t without her disavowal of Jean, their circling of desire, resentment and betrayal. When Jean dispatches her one living tie to the house she explodes: ‘You think I can’t stand the sight of blood… I’d like to see your blood, your brains on the block… you think I love you, just because my body lusted for your seed…’ Jean’s previous refusal to say he loves her ’in this house’ brings its reward. He’d reflect he was right not to humour Julie even that far.
The outbursts, the intimate revelations of Jean’s desire for Julie even as a boy, her revelations of her mother’s arson, all bonding gambits show us another possible side, always defeated by conditioning. From the desperate ‘Kill me… I hate you, I despise you., there’s blood between s now’ which still has Jean command a getaway, after Kristin’s intervention Julie begs Jean to pretend he’s the commanding Earl and she’s him. ‘One last service…. will me to do it.’ Strindberg’s excoriating class-reversal has even more kinks to work out after that.
All three actors are outstanding. Even with so popular a work, it’s unlikely we’ll get a cleaner version, or a more absorbing production any time soon.