Patrick Marber’s version of Strindberg 1888 classic Miss Julie transposes the action to 1945, on the evening of Labour’s landslide victory. In an English country mansion, the servants’ summer ball is taking place. The master of the house is out of town, and his daughter Julie has stayed behind with the servants. Cat, mice, etc.
This is the first of the Young Vic’s ‘green productions’ Classics for a New Climate, in which it attempts to reduce the amount of energy that goes into producing a show; recycling props and scenery, reducing paper usage and so on. So expect crude wooden blocks instead of tickets. Also expect the theatre to smell… kind of like a barn. We’re not sure whether that’s intended, but it is rather in keeping with the setting; the barn in which the ball is underway being visible through the windows of the servants’ kitchen, where the action takes place.
Here, kitchen maid Christine potters around doing her final chores of the day, while her fiance, John, the master’s chauffeur, dances the night away with Miss Julie. When Julie follows him down to the kitchen as he attempts to make his escape, poor Christine must watch and bite her lip as the shameless young mistress of the house seduces him in front of her. Of course, things get rather out of hand, and John and Julie must find a way out of their predicament before the house wakes up and His Lordship returns.
We’re not altogether sure some of the more melodramatic moments of the play really worked in this setting – some even elicited laughter from the audience. Yet, this laughter doesn’t get in the way. Natalie Dormer’s vivacious Julie is so truthful in her impulsiveness and volatility, she earns her extravagant outbursts. (‘Die with me, John! A suicide pact.’) So although we laugh, we still believe her. Dormer cuts a proud, vibrant figure on the stage, flouncing spectacularly, tossing her perfectly coiffed head and picking up her high-heeled feet with all the flair of a spirited show-pony. In contrast is Polly Frame’s moralistic, devout Christine. Exhausted and slumped, with her weary smile and her curl papers, she remains stoic and silent, though quietly disapproving, as Julie giggles coyly and flicks her handkerchief at John’s nose. Kieran Bew captures both the callous and the kind sides of John, who, when it comes down to it, is rather a spineless cad. Yet – and perhaps this is more in the writing than the acting – the two sides don’t always mesh well. It’s sometimes hard to find the justification for such swift and fickle changes in his character.
Though undoubtably talented, the actors might do well to remember where they are. The morning after their indiscretion, the pair return to the kitchen, where John proceeds to roar his head off and make no attempt to quieten Julie as she bawls hers off too, throwing chairs and drawers about the room, seemingly unconcerned that Christine is asleep just down the hall. This irritant aside, the production is nicely directed by Natalie Abrahami. She handles the frequent changes of pace and tone and exchanges of power in this battle of the sexes – and of the classes – with dexterity, making for compelling watching. A fine revival of Marber’s play.