This adaptation of Miss Julie is a textbook lesson in how to kill a classic

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

Polly Stenham starts her overhaul of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with the title. She gives the ‘Miss’ a miss and calls it Julie. The wonder of Strindberg is that his characters speak to us with such force, knowingness and candour that they seem to belong to our own era. Modernising the setting destroys the wonder. This is a textbook lesson in how to kill by transplantation. We’re in a London mansion owned by an absent billionaire whose chauffeur, Jean, is casually seduced by a trustafarian coke fiend, Julie, on the night of her 33rd birthday. Julie’s motives are lust, boredom, a need for attention and a perfunctory desire to sabotage Jean’s forthcoming marriage to Kristina the cleaner, a bombshell from Brazil.

In Strindberg’s original, Julie’s act of rebellion is audaciously erotic and thrilling to watch. She sins three ways: against her father, against her class and against her duty of loyalty and patronage to the family servants. Here, Strindberg’s intricate structure of prohibitions and taboos collapses and we’re left with a couple of hip Londoners having a two-minute knee-trembler on the roof terrace. Beyond carnal attraction, there’s nothing to keep them together, and in the real world these frenzied shaggers would know this was a one-night stand. Yet the script obliges them to make breathless plans about eloping and starting a restaurant business abroad. They sound like two over-excited teens who’ve just lost their virginity on a Youth Hostelling weekend.

The heroic defiance of Strindberg’s Julie is completely flattened by Stenham who turns her into a talentless parasite approaching middle age. Jean is even harder to like. He’s a wine snob and a love rat who has a priggish control-freak side. He wants to police Julie’s social life while subtly investigating her financial position. As soon as he learns that she lacks access to daddy’s cash, he cancels their elopement. The performers do their best to animate this airless and sometimes baffling script.

They’re not helped by the design of the millionaire’s kitchen, letterbox in shape, which looks like a luxury slaughterhouse. It’s odd to choose a flattened oblong set that can only accentuate the Lyttelton’s cumbersome lateral proportions. Wise designers would seek the opposite effect. The show’s highlight comes with the execution of Julie’s pet bird. At last, the up-to-date setting pays off because a modern kitchen is fitted with more lethal instruments than Strindberg could ever have imagined. There’s a microwave, a toaster, a food blender, a washer-drier, an electric carving knife and a George Foreman two-portion grill. I won’t say which Julie plumped for but it got more laughs than the dead parrot sketch.

Machinal is a morality play from 1928 by the American feminist Sophie Treadwell. Enslavement is the theme. A Young Woman trapped in a ghastly office job receives a proposal from her boss. She discusses this with her spiteful mother who envies her daughter but sees that marriage will bring them security. This 15-minute scene is a small masterpiece of poisoned love. Technically it’s brilliant. The Young Woman enters her mother’s kitchen intending to discuss the proposal, nothing more. A short time later she has agreed to get married and this decision has somehow evolved from a series of verbal steps that were accidental and yet predestined as well. It’s one of those rare passages of drama that seems to have been written by fate rather than the human hand.

The Young Woman’s husband treats her decently, even though she shudders at his approach. He expects nothing from her but obedience as she passes like a prize cow from her mother’s custodianship to his own. She suffers horribly while giving birth and he comforts her in hospital. Patiently, caringly, he explains that he understands her pain, having listened to her cries from outside the maternity suite. The play is full of gruesome ironies like this. The language underlines the central motif. Everyone speaks in banalities. The near-dead and the near-meaningless clichés come spooling out of their mouths like verbal chains.

The Young Woman strays and takes a lover who unwittingly implants in her mind the means of terminating her captivity. The action ends bleakly and violently. Director Natalie Abrahami deserves prizes for her crisp, no-nonsense production. The classy design by Miriam Buether is full of ingenious ideas (although it was a mistake to disrupt the 1920s setting with anachronisms like CNN microphones and Guantanamo jumpsuits).

This is a short piece and in some ways a crude and horrible one. It’s a howl of rage, a near-suicidal plea for revolution from 90 years ago. But it struck me with the force of something larger than drama, something beyond art even, something real, magnificent and exquisitely painful to observe. Like a battleship sinking under heavy fire with the crew singing their hearts out as they blast the final pointless rounds of ammunition into the sky.

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