sat 20/07/2024

Miss Julie, Park Theatre review - Strindberg's kitchen drama still packs a punch | reviews, news & interviews

Miss Julie, Park Theatre review - Strindberg's kitchen drama still packs a punch

Miss Julie, Park Theatre review - Strindberg's kitchen drama still packs a punch

Much adapted play gets a traditional staging fuelled by electric leads

The cast of Miss Julie - gooseberries for lunch?Mark Senior

You have to tiptoe around the edge of the set just to take your seat in the Park’s studio space for Lidless Theatre’s Miss Julie. There’s a plain wooden table, a few utensils on it, wooden chairs and a small cabinet – not much, but, we’re smack inside this 19th century country house kitchen, uncomfortably close to discomfiting passions.

It may be the longest day outside, but we're in a dark, claustrophobic space in more senses than one.

The cook, Christine, hair tied back ferociously, is cooking up poison to effect an abortion for the house dog, but there are sounds of revelry in the distance, a Scandinavian midsummer celebration underway. Life is passing her by. Adeline Waby keeps a tight rein on the servant’s emotions as the night progresses into a disastrous day, when her deep rooted, traditional values will disintegrate on first contact with messy reality.

The ennui is broken when a uniformed man walks in radiating confidence and entitlement. Freddie Wise (pictured below with Katie Eldred) has something of the look and demeanour of a young Rik Mayall as Jean, long hair swept back (but not severely and not tied), he assumes complete control of the kitchen and the woman. Christine is dazzled by his glamour and conversational ease and flattered by his attention – but it’s obviously not a done deal between them.  

That all changes when Miss Julie unexpectedly turns up below stairs and she is, as Jean suggested, already half-crazy, blatantly enticed by the prospect of transgression and very much on the rebound from breaking up with a boring fiance. Katie Eldred’s mistress of the manor is raven-haired, eyes almost all pupil in their hungry gaze and used to being the centre of attention – a femme fatale. She looks at Jean and he, now timid, deferential and, initially at least, radiating his knowledge of his place, looks at her – and the only question is "when" not "if".

August Strindberg’s masterpiece is so often adapted and performed (Laura Lomas’s excellent update, The House Party, has just finished its run in Chichester) that I suspect many will have known exactly how the fates of the dowdy cook, the ambitious valet and the wild-child beauty play out. The delight is in witnessing how it’s done, whilst being amused by its humour (as much as Chekhov would have found and just as dark) and having one’s thoughts about class, repression, feminism, agency, ego, risk, hope, violence and much else underlined, challenged, demolished. Under Max Harrison’s assured direction, it’s done very well indeed, the tension ratcheted up and up for 75 minutes until our release.                

The two leads are electric, compelling, sexy and they know it. Wise finds the sweet spot between arrogance and charm. His Jean is intelligent and energetic, but you can see the early stages of how the thwarting of his ambition, his class limiting his prospects, is already curdling into a resentment towards others and the early stages of self-hatred. In ten years time, he’ll be fertile territory for the politicians who will tell him that it’s not his fault (and, to be fair, it isn’t) and that he should turn all that hatred outwards towards immigrants or Jews or "The Elite". 

As his ticket to sexual and financial nirvana, Eldred delivers exactly what such a man desires. Her status makes her forbidden fruit and thus even more irresistible, but she’s vulnerable, continually insisting on being rescued, then tearing herself away. Each have just enough cruelty and contempt for the other to make them a perfect match – for one night only. On the infamous Hot/Crazy matrix, Eldred finds 10 on both axes, but she retreats from such caricature and finds the tragedy in Julie’s ultimate Hobson’s Choice. 

Waby has the thankless role of the unheeded voice of morality as Christina, the cook in thrall to God and Jean in that order (most of the time). She gets out of the way when the sparks fly, but there’s sympathy in the character too – she may condemn her fiance and her mistress, but she feels enough of their emotional trauma to find some empathy, despite the insensitivity that she is expected to swallow – and does. After all, she’s just as trapped as the other two, just with more perspective and thus more compensations.

The energy does sap a little in the last 20 minutes or so and the physical violence, so central to the relationship, is fudged, perhaps in a nod towards the sensibilities of 21st century audiences (though one would have thought the 16+ trigger warning would have covered that). One leaves the theatre contemplative and intrigued when one really should leave shocked and angry. 

The play may be 136 years old now and this is a straight version with nothing imported to the setting or translation, but such is the power of the drama and the strength of the performances, in a perfect venue, that Strindberg might as well have written it yesterday. 

Or tomorrow, such is the persistence of its themes and the inevitable consequences of the restlessness of human nature trapped in too circumscribed, too judgmental a world.    

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