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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Polly Stenham and and director Carrie Cracknell team for a contemporary adaptation of Strindberg’s disturbing masterpiece. Tom Scutt’s cleanly-focused set. Stuart Earl’s music pumped out in Christopher Shutt’s sound design. Ann Yee’s movement isn’t confined to the dance numbers. Guy Hoare’s lighting suitably grunges out acids colours.


A lone young woman in a grand house where the father’s absent, and the mother’s killed herself. The fit with Polly Stenham’s abiding themes seems perfect. No wonder she and director Carrie Cracknell were commissioned to update Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and more’s missed as it were than the monicker. It’s different again to Patrick Marber’s intelligent After Miss Julie set on election night, 1945.


Julie’s in one sense more faithful than Strindberg. Like Hedda Gabler Miss Julie was in part inspired by the death of  Victoria Benedictsson (1850-1888) whose male-pseudonymed novel Money brought her Scandinavian fame, and critic George Brandes. He proved almost as misogynist as his admired , Strindberg, damning Benedictsson’s next novel but inspiring  her tremendous play. It took till 2000 before The Enchantment’s acclaimed  UK premiere, at the National . Let’s hope it returns.


Stenham might not have  had Benedictsson in mind as a reclamation; yet this play’s dynamic pulls refreshingly towards Julie and the maid Kristina who takes a larger share of dialogue.


That’s not to say the upwardly mobile servant Jean isn’t fully featured. Stenham’s always strong on establishing speeches and Strindberg’s text is followed closely, with sudden nudges and shifts. And late on, Stenham’s faithful last directions (in the published text) for Jean, close to the original, were removed in performance by her and Cracknell; as well as one new action by Kristina. It further tilts the play towards female agency and truth to the emotions Stenham establishes between the two women from the start. It works.


There’s elements that might preclude this production being revived or toured though as Stenham expressly hoped in a Woman’s Hour interview. A cast of three and noises off (even small ensemble) is easy to manage. The heft of the National’s resources however deploys eleven ‘partygoers’ and nine ‘supernumeraries’. A cast of twenty-three recalls the National’s 2015 revival of Churchill’s A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. There, a cast expanded from the original six to eighteen with an added community chorus of forty-four.


Tom Scutt’s servant-scrubbed set makes a mezzanine of a party floor nominally above the kitchen where the action’s mostly set in the basement of a large Hampstead house. Everything’s a chic concrete grey, the rooms boxed in so there’s a perpetual sense of containment, notwithstanding the doors left and right on a raised level frequently used. A kitchen table centre is flanked by a modern kitchen design where Kristina’s often thrusting rubbish or recycling. Cupboards are meant to be soft-close, but Kristina often has to jam them shut. Things fall apart. At the end things recede in a masterly withdrawal of the whole set.


Everything zeroes onto what’s in colour and that’s mostly Julie. Above the mezzanine pulsates with Stuart Earl’s music pumped out to gyrating people in Christopher Shutt’s sound design – more subtle than you’d think, and later used to devastating effect in bird cries and flutterings. Ann Yee’s movement isn’t confined to the dance numbers and this is a play of frantic bustle and glowering stillness. Guy Hoare’s lighting suitably grunges out acid colours whereas the foreground’s mostly clinical, like a perpetual torture chamber relieved only briefly by switching off lights.


June 20th, midsummer eve; Julie’s birthday. The parti-rainbowed partygoers twist and snort; Julie’s up there snorting with the rowdiest, dragging round the embarrassed bartender. She has no friends though; at thirty-three, after two universities, six continents, one abortion, and too much experience of a kind, this isn’t the sexual ingénue Strindberg envisaged.


Jean’s thirty-one from Ghana, and involved with Brazilian Kristina, thirty; they’re all street-savvy in different ways but hobbled: social dynamics are underlined. It’s happening around you now, Stenham’s saying, to the Lyttelton’s demographic. Two immigrants from London’s underclass who have less chance than Jean’s original of making it into the world of masters are negotiating an edgy relationship with the damaged Julie. ‘That woman is wild tonight’ reports Jean truthfully this time.  Seething undercurrents of class conflict onstage spill into streets around us.


It isn’t that the self-loathing crumblingly imperious Julie hasn’t got anything to complain of. She it was who discovered her suicide mother. Stenham’s particularly good at locating the damage inherent in the lives of those apparently privileged children, of whom she identifies Julie as one. Halfway through this very performance (on midsummer eve), police discovered the body of thirty-two-year-old reality star Sophie Grandon.


Multi Ian Charelson-Award and BAFTA-winning Vanessa Kirby is outstanding at the mixing  fragility with arrogance, remnants of a must-have culture that includes the fiancé of her best friend, as she thinks Kristina. Kirby’s Julie is watchful, both appalled by herself and fascinated by Jean, whom she snaps and shouts at. It’s clear she’s frighteningly close to the same razor edge as discovering her mother dead, that everyone around her has somehow pushed her into the same role. If she asks ‘Am I insane?’ it’s also because people have suggested it.


Now she lusts after Jean, with the sudden ache of just being publicly dumped and humiliated by her own fiancé when she pleads with him. It’s another concrete motive, Julie’s instincts for validation are frighteningly predatory, and simply frightened. There’s also the comedown of drugs and a party where she tried to keep every leaving guest just that bit longer


Jean’s predatory too. He’s known Julie since returning from her second university, five years ago. ‘I’ve seen how you’ve looked at me… like I’m an animal.. So you play with it… I can play with you too.’ Eric Kofi Abrefa combines poise with quick-witted opportunism, whether grabbing a kiss from Kristina, a chateaux bottle for the master only, or Julie herself.


Thalissa Teixeira’s warm, sexy often-dancing Kristina is above all loyal, to both Julie and Jean. Both betray her. The denouement’s curiously geared. There’s much talk of running away to create a restaurant and Jean’s assumption that as a Trustafarian Julie can get her hands on anything. But her past means she’s financially grounded. He threatens Julie with media exposure. Again she’s frightened of shame, not guilt. This might not be sufficient reason to propel Julie to anything drastic; but a combination of media trolls and bereavement just pushed another reality star over the edge.


Jean’s contempt for Julie’s frequent out-of-control moments, seems sickled over with a pale cast of cash here. It doesn’t seem logical that he’d leave London to fly abroad, yet his urgency in trying to get Julie out of the house isn’t a fear of the master returning who’d said ‘you’re sticking the maid’ but Kristina herself. Jean’s genuinely frightened of confronting her, not though of deserting her. He’s worried things have been cleared away. Did Julie do that? The fate of Julie’s bird has been aired, but see for yourself. Again, Stenham takes the initiative from Jean.


When Kristina does confront everything unravels. There’s doubtless much to be said against this production’s scale, and some might feel updating robs Strindberg’s dynamic of shame, ostracism, the no-exit claustrophobia of the original. This production could tour in a reduced version though and not lose the essential points. That Julie, inscrutable as she seems, is someone responding to several crises at once, dizzy from drugs, and perhaps finding in Jean the excuse to escape in one way as much as another, with him. This seems an almost classically-conceived breakdown, in the ones I’ve witnessed.


If that option with Jean seems incredible, then that’s Strindberg. There are moments when Stenham might have made that joint pipe-dream more credible, but it doesn’t alter the dynamic. This Jean’s not the prompter of Julie’s actions, is not in charge. And it’s Kristina’s actions that in the end bring us back to the shattered arc of the impossible fragile friendship of two people separated by a large house. I can’t help thinking that Benedictsson would have approved. It’s a revelatory Julie for our time.