Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 8 September 2018
Polly Stenham has updated August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie to contemporary London. Why? Well, it would be foolish to think that this new version is modern only because of its language, setting and clothes. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge achieved in Fleabag, Stenham goes right to the core of a character who is a privileged but lonely and messed up individual – and surprisingly relatable.
Tom Scutt’s design, a mega-basement kitchen of clean white lines, epitomises the filthy rich of today. It’s completely impersonal, impractical and probably barely used by the homeowner. Christopher Shutt’s brilliant white lighting is complete with a border which, on the Lyttelton’s wide stage, creates the effect of a landscape picture of money: a literal framing of this crucible of class, money, sex and power.
This is emphasised in Carrie Cracknell’s direction when, at the end, Scutt’s whole set moves back. It’s almost like a cinematic zooming out, perhaps to draw attention to the intensity and hermetic nature of Strindberg’s and Stenham’s world. Stenham and Cracknell also take us out of the kitchen and into Julie’s birthday party upstairs, Scutt’s set opening up to reveal even more white.
About halfway through one of these early party scenes, there was a rather bizarre moment which I presume was a rare lapse in the NT’s stage management efficiency. A trap door opened and the top of a ladder appeared before quickly bobbing down and closing. I later realised that this mistiming was a spoiler to Chris Fisher’s illusion which was perhaps supposed to give the effect of Julie being out of herself. However, by this point, the result it had on the production was to only make the party seem more excessive.
What difference to the uber-rich does a random trap door at a party make when there are already crashmats, massively oversized speakers and rudimentary slides? For me, it also exposed what I thought was a slightly gimmicky production. Party revellers climbing into the eight or so dishwashers whilst smearing mud around the kitchen seemed neither a meaningful metaphor nor a visual spectacle that fitted in with the rest of the direction. Entertaining, sure, but with no apparent, enlightening purpose (not that it had to have one).
It’s Stenham’s text and a trio of top performances that are the things to write home about. From what I remember of the play from Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, the play is a messy knot of contradictions, hypocrisies, a push and pull of social politics and passion. That’s not the case with Stenham’s Julie. Before seeing the play I read Tim Bano’s review for The Stage, in which he wasn’t convinced by Jean’s (Eric Kofi Abrefa) shift from social ladder climbing chauffeur to a fantasist wanting to fly to Cape Verde that evening and set up a restaurant with his employer’s daughter. But, for me, the wild change seemed clear. It came right after he slept with Julie and so seemed to be him drunk on a sip of the highlife. She has shown him a glimpse of privilege that turns his mind to money and rash, impulsive escapism. But he also has an ability to get under Julie’s skin – his speech about his first sight of Julie, unconvinced by her romantic desire to look like a Pre-Raphaelite sitting alone in a garden, is especially compelling. The maid character Kristina is inexcusably underwritten but Thalissa Teixeira’s performance is not wanting: her constrained anger, her trust for Jean and her true affection for Julie are superbly conveyed.
Vanessa Kirby gets her teeth into the title character, a twenty-something with complete abandon. It’s not a surprise that such a destructive character comes from the writer of That Face. Julie may come from a successful family but she’s not much of a success: a jobless university dropout with a drug addiction and no true friends. There’s a wince-inducing echo to Fleabag in the killing of a pet, which Julie does without hesitating so much can she not bear to part with it. Such a moment is testament that, in a world where it’s so difficult to take control, it’s easier for Julie to destruct than it is for her to be productive. That’s what it seems that Stenham’s Julie has a fascination in, something which it shares with Fleabag and perhaps Magali Mougel’s Suzy Storck. But is this a diagnosis of the modern world and why did it have to be shown through Strindberg?
Julie plays at the National Theatre until 8th September.
Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean in Julie at the National TheatrePhoto: Richard Hubert Smith