Wednesday, 19 June 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Miss Julie - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

What is striking about Strindberg’s Miss Julie, written in 1888, is its very modern use of language and themes. Indeed this play was not well received due the scandalous nature of the story, to the extent that Strindberg had to create his own theatre company to perform it as no other was willing to present it. Even then it was cancelled by the authorities on its dress rehearsal. The first performance of this play, therefore, was performed in private and not open to the public.

By today’s standards, the storyline is not quite as shocking as it was at that time. The sex scene occurs completely out of sight and completely silently and the idea of sexual relations between different social statuses, or a seductive woman on the prowl are not completely sensational today. Nevertheless, the extremely natural approach to the three characters – Miss Julie, daughter of the Count, played by Alice Frankham, John, servant to the Count, played by Danny Solomon and Christine, the cook in the Count’s household played by Lois Mackie – made the audience feel like a fly on the wall of this very real drama. Perhaps a contemporary acceptance of sexual themes in the theatre allows the audience to focus even more on these very individual characters and access some of the deeper messages and thoughts that his classic play and precursor to modern theatre provokes.

On arrival to the theatre, there were actors dressed as servants standing on duty by the entrance and dotted around the bar area and a fiddler played in the courtyard. This set an interesting atmosphere, placing the audience as part of the elite visiting the Count’s manor house on the midsummer’s eve celebration. These servants were well dressed in crisp white shirts and cloth waistcoats. They politely greeted audience members who passed by with a "Good evening, sir / madam". The setting of tonight’s performance was clearly contemporary to the original setting in the late 19th century.

As is expected with naturalistic plays, the setting, while not fantastical, was a very realistic Victorian manor house kitchen with a huge iron cooking range and equally huge wooden table. The detail in this replica kitchen was superb. Costumes too were exquisitely detailed and realistic.

The audience soon gets to know what this play is about through an immediate conversation between the servant John and his fiancĂ©e Christine, the cook, about the behaviour of Miss Julie who had recently broken off her engagement. She had been dancing at the midsummer celebrations with the staff in the barn and is thoroughly crazy. There is some relish in John’s telling of this story, a hint of excitement and the actor Solomon provided great nuance to his lines throughout the play. He is a strong-headed man, with experience and dreams of getting above his station. He talks to the two women sometimes as equals, sometimes as subservient to Miss Julie, sometimes as a man above these women, which gives him some complexity but also makes his character very round and not simply a caricature. He is portrayed as an intelligent and capable northern man with a deep voice, which contrasts well with Miss Julie who is also intelligent, but southern and noble. When Miss Julie appears, she is commanding and brazen and has John kiss her feet. This commanding character is undone gradually until Miss Julie is hysterical. Frankham descends in to this chaos with great subtlty proving that indeed the character of Miss Julie is one of the greats of modern theatre.

John and Miss Julie dance around the norms of status, John being sometimes open and frank and other times servile and humble, Miss Julie is commanding and demanding and yet at other times vulnerable and needy. This dance leads to a critical moment when other workers and servants are heard making their way to the kitchen. John takes Miss Julie to hide in a pantry. The workers arrive and are drunk, singing and dancing while the fiddler plays. The ensemble was made up of students from ALRA North and Arden School of Theatre and they looked and played their parts very well, adding some humour to the story. It was at this moment that we learned that something was going on in the pantry. The ensemble go silent and gather round the pantry, holding their laughter trying to listen. We hear nothing but it is made clear by the reactions from the servants that something was happening between servant John and Miss Julie. Before leaving, the servants burst out in to a raucous song poking fun at what was happening, and then they scarper. Miss Julie then reappears, dishevelled, fixing her hair, and John appears behind her, shirt undone and tie removed.

At face value, the play, in my opinion, begins to lose a little of its tension from this point. This is no fault of this production – I simply found it hard to understand the character of Miss Julie as she begins to unravel about the consequences of what she has done. On the one hand, there is still an element of 19th century stigma around the idea of the independent woman and her not having a resilience equal to man, on the other hand there is a lack of relevance today around this type of woman in society. She is not a familiar character neither through her status nor her individual character and she gets weaker and weaker as the play unfolds. John, on the other hand, is a very familiar character – a working man who is manipulative and deceptive for his own benefit and clearly disregarding of women despite some pretences. That character, unfortunately, has stood the test of time.

Christine, the cook, added a big slap of realism to this realistic play in a flawless performance. She was initially a greek chorus character that allowed John to flesh out his thoughts about Miss Julie in her absence, but as the events unfolded she became the only voice of reason and common sense.

This play touches on themes that are both simple and straightforward yet hidden and complex on many levels yet as it hurtles to its catastrophic end it loses a bit of its naturalism and steps in to the sensational and unbelievable.

Elysium Theatre Company presented a high quality production with a superb cast that carried the audience through some of the limitations of this play with gravitas and humour.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 18/6/19

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