Miss Julie

Tue 23rd – Sat 27th October 2012

reviews

Thomas Stell

at 02:10 on 24th Oct 2012

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Miss Julie is a popular play at the moment, Edinburgh this year had two productions of it, and it is not hard to see why. The eponymous character is a count’s daughter, oppressed by the difficult family life of her childhood, who one Midsummer’s Eve, this is the event of the play, throws herself at her father’s valet, Jean, a man with equally painful memories and with aspirations to escape his own low position. There is a lot in it for those interested in gender and class and it suits the taste of our times for plays on social themes. That one of the Edinburgh productions changed the setting from Europe to apartheid South Africa, I believe to good effect, demonstrates what is seen in it. It is too a naturalistic play, and gives us some very satisfyingly complicated characters.

Sophie Ablett as Miss Julie successfully shows such complexity, she seems always subtly neurotic, and likely to change from submissive to vengeful at the least touch. Her face is soft and prettily girlish, and she is thus very well cast; her Miss Julie seems to have such enormous sensitivity. Alexander Stutt plays Jean, an actor whose earlier eccentric style I have already remarked on. His Iago and his Edward II were jittery and tense, done with distracting contortions and quick movements. He is still perhaps a little tense but has improved tremendously, and he shapes his phrases and speeches with obvious intelligence and exactitude.

The play is certainly not easy. The two protagonists frequently change their minds and their moods, such as in their made and unmade plans to escape their current surrounds and set up abroad, as if driven by great currents of feeling, separate elements of personality which cross over, are swamped by one another, and emerge again in their struggle for government of the mind. This is the drama in a play with very little physical action in it. Both Julie and Jean are moved variously by desire, hope, regret, despair, and the insufferable weight of memory, all put into further confusion by the act of love making in a manner which reminds one of Schnitzler’s Reigen. Naturally this asks a lot of an actor, so it is unsurprising that in a student performance not all the intricacies of the inner lives have been worked out. The erotic power for Jean is also not easily found in a student actor, so it is not surprising either that Stutt didn’t quite have enough.

The result is still good, but it doesn’t compare brilliantly with some student productions of, say, Rattigan, who puts more of his drama into the stage action and writes shorter, faster scenes. As I have said, this is to be expected given the play's difficulty, but a better job might have been done had direction been more precise (especially important in such a small space as the Burton Taylor, where every movement is noticed) and the play been rehearsed for longer.

Nor can I say this kind of naturalism is hugely to my taste. Miss Julie is certainly moving, but one gets bogged down in the obvious comments on society. Jean often says he is above Julie because he would never degrade himself sexually as she does, and Kristen his fellow servant pointedly speaks her shock at the dissolute actions of her mistress. The didacticism gets in the way of the emotion. It would be nice too if Strindberg’s later, Symbolist works, the most famous of which being A Dream Play, were put on a bit more. I think they are beautiful pieces, in a transcendent, imaginative language that, for what it’s worth, anticipates the writing of the expressionists and absurdists, and in general the avant-garde that came after them, far more so than such as Miss Julie for all the latter’s concern with sexuality and realistic psychology.

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Lizhi Howard

at 09:17 on 24th Oct 2012

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The creative team behind ‘Miss Julie’ have taken great pleasure in exploring the naturalism displayed in Strindberg’s writing. In their statement in the program they comment on how the author called for natural dialogue “in which people’s minds move irregularly.” It’s not quite Dennis Kelly (his work ‘Orphans’ also being performed this week) but this production asks its audience to remember that people don’t speak in regular rhythms or patterns, but often interrupt each other, mumble, and stop mid-sentence. Rather than being off-putting, it is a quite refreshing look at how a play was originally intended to look when it was first performed in 1888.

The design follows this in that it is very naturalistic. Kitchen items are strewn haphazardly and attention to detail has obviously been paramount to designer Jay Anslow. This is carried through in the lighting, where a straw wash is dimmed and brightened to show the coming and leaving of night. However, the placement of the set in the BT meant that the majority of the action took place in a rather cramped area of stage right. This could be put down to a first night error and easily fixed by repositioning a few choice items.

The play itself is about the power struggle between those on the higher and lower rungs of society. This point is illustrated in the first section of the play when Jean tells the Count’s daughter, the eponymous Miss Julie, that he dreams of climbing a tree, and knows he can do so, as soon as he makes it onto the first branch. By contrast, Miss Julie dreams of being on a pedestal and longing to get down, but being too afraid to jump. The two characters experience this struggle via their mounting sexual chemistry and though Miss Julie clearly starts off with the upper hand, she rapidly loses it, with catastrophic consequences.

Sophie Ablett plays the Count’s daughter with both grace and intensity. She manages very well with her character’s spoilt and capricious nature at the opening, and yet presents a very believable emotional collapse as the play progresses. She particularly shines during Julie’s narrative about her parents, delivering the lines with the attitude of someone at breaking point and yet just about managing to hold onto herself. The contrast between her loathing for Jean in the greenfinch scene and her ultimate surrender at the end of the play show Ms Ablett to be both a talented and capable actress.

The part of Jean is taken by Alexander Stutt. He utilises an understated manner which serves to make his character’s manipulations even more terrifying. His casual admittance of the lies he has told in the play, delivered with a shrug, a twitched eyebrow, and a dead-pan voice make both the character and Miss Julie’s reactions to him all the more believable. Mr Stutt’s reactions are as valuable as his actions. He is always in character, but always subtle, never pulling focus until the script and situation require it; a talent much to be admired in this style of production.

Although the part is small, Tanya Lacey-Solymar plays a fantastic Kristen. A servant in the household and presumed fiancé of Jean, she provides a voice of reason and dignity when Julie and Jean move beyond the point of reality in their power games. Ms Lacey-Solymar plays within the machinery of the production to full effect, her delivery in the closing moments both believable and a little bit heart-breaking.

However, the production on occasion does feel a little lacklustre. The emphasis on naturalism often leaves the actors standing or sitting very still for long stretches of time, and when they finally do move it can feel forced. The waltz, though bravely executed, felt awkward in the space and so didn’t achieve the aim of heightening the sexual tension, which could have been more successfully maintained without this addition. Whilst the use of the props in the greenfinch scene was effective at other points it felt like there were too many to manage, with characters asking for wine when there was a glass already in front of them. The accuracy of the historical dress also meant that the moments when this was not maintained- a turned collar here, an undone button there - were obvious and visually jarring.

In all this felt like a production with its heart in the right place, but had been hampered by too much concentration on ‘natural’ and not quite enough rehearsal to pull it off.

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