Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 8 September 2018
Sigh. Ok, this is going to hurt because I’m such a supporter of women creatives and want to fight for more opportunities for them but Julie is awful. I mean, when a show is interminably dull, that’s one problem; when it’s problematic, that’s quite another. But when a show is both, well… I mean, where do you go with that?
Julie (Vanessa Kirby) is an indulged, drug-fuelled upper-class, party addict with a rich father and a trust fund in her name. It’s her birthday and the party is a rave at hers – only her so-called friends are little more than parasitic hangers-on and her father’s idea of a gift is a bunch of flowers no doubt ordered by his secretary. In fact, the only people who seem to give a damn about Julie are those on the staff – Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira), her assistant, and Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), her Dad’s chauffeur. Who also just happens to be Kristina’s fiancé too.
Not that their romance interests Julie of course. She’s such a narcissist that the only thing that interests her – or rather, consumes her – is her own depression, her own tragedies, which makes her believe that it’s her suffering and position that must be everyone’s focus; all others can go to hell. And not just that for, worse, motivated by jealousy and boredom (and out of her head on alcohol and pills) Julie decides to try and lure Jean into a lusty one-night stand – just for kicks – even though she knows perfectly well it will destroy Kristina’s happiness.
Basically, Julie is a bitch. There’s no two ways around it; she’s horrible, vicious and vain. But she’s also troubled – her addictions a symptom of deep emotional scars. The purpose of this set-up, I suspect, is to challenge us. Julie is the kind of privileged pretty woman we’d all love to hate. What writer Polly Stenham is trying to do is defy us not to care about her.
The problem is, Polly doesn’t succeed. I don’t care about Julie. Not even remotely. Vanessa Kirby works hard in this role, but her character is nasty, racist and cruel and, in all frankness, a play that asks us to feel pity for a poor little rich girl feels unbelievably tone-deaf. I mean, take a look outside, everyone. Look at the world around us. And you think I’m going to care about the tiny tragedies of a rich woman? Please. In the words of George Michael, ‘Who gives a fuck about your problems, darling/’Cause you can pay the rent.’
But anyway, these thoughts don’t seem to dent this production, and so we follow Julie through her cat-and-mouse game with Jean as she tries to seduce him. Or is he trying to seduce her? Anyway, that’s the plot we follow for pretty much the whole of this ninety-minute production. And it’s as dull as hell.
There is nothing meaningful at stake, so it feels so insipid. The chemistry between Jean and Kristina doesn’t seem real so you don’t feel there would be much loss here and, in fact, Jean is so badly drawn – an unbelievable and confusing blend between an arch-manipulator and a fantasist – that you actually think Kristina would be better off without him, so who cares.
It’s just so boring. But, worse, uncomfortable too. Given that the parts of the household help are both played by people of colour, the set up feels uncomfortably racist. Casting people of colour to bring in a race and ethnicity dynamic to what is unsaid in the writing needs to be handled carefully. That isn’t done here.
It’s at its explicit worst for Kristina, whom Julie refers to derisively as her ‘maid.’ Kristina perpetually downplays her own suffering and unhappiness, prioritising Julie’s needs over her own, and forever excusing her boss’s misdemeanours and crimes.
Now, getting a woman of colour – a working-class woman of colour – to downplay and minimise her own suffering so not to impose on the sadness of her upper-class white woman boss above hers is just… Yikes. I mean, just no. No, no no. That isn’t good at all. I was quite literally wincing in my seat at these moments.
So, Julie is problematic and dull. Quite how something this clumsy over privilege and race got past quality control at the NT worries me but I’ve a feeling director Carrie Cracknell at least recognised the issue with its dullness because there’s some rather desperate attempts at the finale to add drama through shock tactics, and efforts to create atmosphere through frenetic rave scenes and moments of darkness with dramatisation of the insidious creep of addiction.
Maybe that’ll be enough to impress others but though the visuals were striking, it lends this production a drama the writing doesn’t deserve. Rather, I’m reluctant to applaud the use of cheap thrills to manipulate me. This felt like a very indulged piece of work and, given the world we live in and the desperate need for meaningful diversity and representation in this white upper-class industry that is theatre, this seemed a painfully inappropriate piece of work.
Julie, National Theatre, to September 8, 2018
All production images by Richard H Smith.
Tickets from £15.
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer: Guy Hoare
Movement Director: Ann Yee
Music: Stuart Earl
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Video Designer: Mogzi Bromley-Morgans