Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 2 December 2017
SEX, SHAME, THE STROP OF THE RAZOR… I rashly confessed on Twitter that I spent the afternoon before this astringent production of a Strindberg play reveling in the happy furry world of Paddington 2. Got softened up. Defences down, comforted by marmalade. So you may now appreciate the nervous collapse brought on by 95 minutes of this always alarming 1888 play.
Down from the Theatre by the Lake for its London premiere, this is a new, spare, fluent adaptation by Howard Brenton (whose The Blinding Light a few weeks back demonstrated just how far he is willing to lurch into the crazier interludes of Strindberg’s soul).
Tom Littler directs, and is admirably unafraid to start leisurely, almost lazy, with desultory kitchen conversation, a meal eaten, long pauses and passing remarks between valet and cook behind the green baize doors of the Earl’s house while a midsummer servants’ dance is faintly heard beyond the door. But as Miss Julie joins them the pace rises and tragic energy swells, baleful and tense. It is like spending ninety minutes watching a clear, delicate polished piece of fine glass shiver, creak ominously, crack and finally shatter all over you.
If there is one image which will haunt my dreams it is James Sheldon as Jean the valet – clever, discontented, seductive, ambitiously angry – stropping his cutthroat razor over by the sink. Swish, scrape, swish: its metronomic, relentless rhythm is in ominous contrast to the increasingly hysterical young mistress of the house, skittering and jerking across the kitchen, gabbling crazily to the impassive cook Kristin about the escape the three of them could make – a new life, Switzerland, trains, a hotel, art galleries, rich Englishmen to fleece or marry… No. It’ll come to no good. Swish, scrape, swish goes the razor, the dead pet bird drips on the sideboard.
Well, we know the end, because it is a famous play. But there is something particularly and deliciously unnerving about this production, on the face of it more straightforward than other recent adaptations (like the unbearably irritating Schaubühne Berlin “reinvention for the multimedia age” by Katie Mitchell). It is recognizably, though simply, a late-19c big house kitchen; no gimmicky updating. Jean has the fastidious pomposity of an upper servant who dreads being back amid the ploughmen (he can’t bear Kristin, his cook fiancée, ruffling his immaculate hair) . He brings it an edge of florid, handsome coarseness, the resentful brute slyly peeping out of the smooth exterior even early on as he piously reports the young mistress’ wild unsuitable dancing. Izabella Urbanowicz as Kristin is steady, pious, patient and weary, the social realist among them. And Charlotte Hamblin is magnificent as the volatile Julie, invading the servants’ territory in a midsumme garland, seemingly blithe with Sloaney entitlement, flirting, needling Jean until their disastrous consummation is inevitable.
It is on the face of it the slightest of stories: posh girl sleeps with valet, valet hopes for advancement and money, things are not so smooth. The brilliance, here clearer and sharper than I have yet seen it in any production, lies in exposing not only the disastrousness of the social and gender hierarchy o the day (a few years before Ibsen did the same) but the peculiar, private and individual disaster of these personalities.Jean and Julie are both needy, but want different things from one another. Sex, which seems a simple answer, is in fact the catalyst for disaster. Female panic and loss meets male rage, Sheldon’s Jean at one point quite terrifyingly vile. It holds you gripped in pity and terror, the angst of a bygone age rattling and echoing down the years with perennial truth. People don’t change: read the crime stories in the papers. There will always be an emotional and social impasse somewhere: that razor strop echoes down the century, swish, scrape, swish.
Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
to 2 dec