Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 8 September 2018
We’re in a Hampstead mansion. The daughter of the house is whooping it up at her birthday party, a deafening, purple-lit rave where tight-buttocked androgynes and glittering hair-flickers writhe and shriek. Below them, in a bland grand kitchen, the help – Ghanaian chauffeur John (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and his girlfriend Kristin the maid (Thalissa Teixeira) tidy up, take a swig of the absent Daddy’s Chateau Latour and comment on the chaos. Down comes the birthday girl Julie, leaping around barefoot on the worktops flashing ever more thigh at Jean. And so the trouble begins.
The scenario is familiar, you say? Indeed. It’s a Strindberg update by Polly Stenham, who at 19 famously wrote That Face, brilliant on the damage of growing up in a boho, addiction-addled posh family. A few years later she gave us No Quarter, which was frankly just annoying since rather than any relatable pain it exuded a tiresome conviction that rich decadent bohemians are somehow more interesting than other people. Which is an attitude you can only get away with if you’re Noel Coward, and capable of lightening it up a bit. Which Stenham, as yet, is not.
But this time she joins the endless line of adaptors and updaters of August Strindberg’s toughly nasty, misogynistic Miss Julie: a play soaked in such fin-de-siecle Nordic hopelessness that it makes Ibsen look like PG Wodehouse.
It is hard to see why – apart from the obvious marketing reason – Stenham would need to borrow the classic. There are other ways to tackle the hypocrisies and inequalities of rich London versus its immigrant servitor class – the stated intention here – without piggybacking on the miserable old Swede.
Stenham’s Julie is not an 1888 ingenue for whom sex with Jean would be momentous , but a 33-year-old trust-fund waster, returned home to live with her affluent father, party, and self-medicate with everything from Xanax to cocaine. The gang upstairs is not Strindberg’s estate peasantry but the usual upmarket druggy ravers; the heroine’s degenerate behaviour and distress has less to do with social pressures than with the fact that she’s off her face and with a bolted-on back-story about her mother’s death.
Only the character of Jean with his hard-edged ambition and eye for the main chance feels close to the original, and he is a man for all ages. Stenham’s social-outrage intention is clear enough, especially when the chauffeur (good line) exasperatedly tells the wealthy messed-up Julie “We don’t have the luxury of being sad like you”. And again when Kristina the maid is given a very un-Strindbergian speech of indignation near the end about how she has washed our heroine’s blood-stained underwear , picked her up from abortion clinics, listened to her endlessly but despises the faux-liberal pretence that they were ever any kind of friends.
But with the glossy visual values (Tom Scutt design, amazing) and some remarkably directed movement by the ensemble of non-speaking partygoers (Ann Yee clearly should be booked for your next rave), the howling flaw is that Carrie Cracknell’s production feels more like a zoo – “see the rich posh ravers!” – than any sort of polemic exposure. There is one particularly enjoyable moment when – in what may be a dream sequence – the dancers creep down from above with cockroach-like crawling movements and vanish into the mysteriously changed kitchen appliances. It’s not often you encounter the stage-direction “Exit through the dishwasher”.
And there’s the extreme audience giggle when (back to Strindberg’s detail again) our modern Julie rather improbably insists on taking her pet canary with her on the fantasy flight to Cape Verde with Jean. When told to kill it, she puts it in the Magimix. Vanessa Kirby’s Julie (a tremendous performance, as one would expect) then collapses in sobbing grief about her terrible traumatic past experience. But the Magimix giggle ’n groan has spoilt that. So we feel nothing. What a waste.