Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 8 September 2018
Polly Stenham’s Strindberg straddles the centuries as she translates Miss Julie from 1800s Scandinavia to a modern-day mansion on the fringes of Hampstead Heath. Retaining the original’s core themes, this iteration finds the eponymous Julie as the privileged, entitled daughter of an ever-absent millionaire father and a mother who committed suicide during her childhood. The show opened in London last week, not long after the tragic news had been reported of two millionaire celebrities apparently taking their own lives – Strindberg’s commentary on the depressive loneliness that can reach into the elite’s gilded cages is resonant and timely.
Vanessa Kirby is Julie. Deemed as irresponsible – her personal fortune locked away in trust funds – she is a woman in her 30s who has never been allowed to mature. She glitters on the surface but there is a gaping hole in her deserted soul and like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, her parties are attended by nameless people whose connections are devoid of care or compassion for their hostess.
Jean is Julie’s father’s chauffeur who’s also on duty as the hired muscle to keep the house free from being trashed during Julie’s birthday celebrations. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean drives the play’s tragic arc as he smoulders with a credible, irresistible attractiveness. Completing the triangle of devastation is Thalissa Teixeira’s Kristina, Jean’s fiancee. Her finely nuanced grief, upon discovering her betrayal by her betrothed, is truly heartbreaking.
The one-act play runs just short of 90 minutes, brevity, as it transpires, that is much appreciated. As director Carrie Cracknell opts for style over substance, her production could well set the August Strindberg spinning in his grave.
In an almost mirror image of the amorality of Julie’s casual affluence, the play drips with theatrical opulence that smaller theatre companies will only look at and marvel. The National Theatre have cast 20 (20!) non-speaking partygoers in addition to the trio of protagonists, actors who spend nearly all of the show offstage. Likewise designer Tom Scutt’s trompe-l’oeil in the final scene is so lavish as to detract from Strindberg’s originally conceived harrowing denouement.
There is a very gory moment late on involving a food processor. Such is the extent of that violent incident (clearly and evidently a special effect) that many of the audience are moved to laugh out loud at its gratuitous excess – and in an instant the tragic drama of the moment is lost. If ever there was a production that proves “less is more” then this is it, such is the opportunity squandered amidst such budgetary extravagance.
But the tenets of the tale remain, as Stenham assuredly illustrates the complexities of power, wealth, race and gender. Julie may well be far from a definitive interpretation of Strindberg’s classic, but nonetheless makes for an evening of thought-provoking theatre.
Runs until 8th SeptemberPhoto credit: Richard H Smith