As the curtain rises onstage, the audience are plunged into a party thrown by the social elite; on the upper level of a split stage, the bass throbs, the lights flash and beautiful people dance with a primal urgency. On the lower level we see Brazilian maid Kristina (Thalissa Teixera) diligently cleaning and tidying her employer’s kitchen. Instantly through this staging, the class divide is lucidly exemplified in this fascinating new adaptation of Strindberg’s 1889 controversial play Miss Julie.
Reimagined in the modern day by Polly Stenham, Julie explores the demise of a coked-up socialite with daddy issues. On the night of her thirty-third birthday, Julie embarks on a spontaneous and passionate affair with her father’s black chauffeur Jean. What follows between the two is a complex power struggle based on gender roles, class differences and racial politics.
Vanessa Kirby excels as our protagonist Julie; she switches from vanity to vulnerability with total naturalism, perfectly encapsulating a woman on the brink. Her portrayal of trauma and examination of mental health issues are impressively nuanced, making for a powerful and emotive performance. Kirby sizzles alongside the excellent Eric Kofi Abrefa (Jean); their game of cat and mouse is tantalising throughout.
However, stellar performances are not enough to give this production the true clout it seeks. In the closing moments the stage is strewn with dead flowers, broken glass, mud and bloodstains; it is pure carnage and yet the final actions of the play, though beautifully acted, do not seem to be a consequence of the themes that have been explored throughout Julie. This tragic ending feels more like inevitability from some inexplicable force, rather than the result of class boundaries and racial constructs.
Though Stenham’s production is bold and brilliant in many ways, it does not seamlessly translate the themes of Strindberg’s original work. Our tragic heroine’s hamartia is her narcissism and her past trauma, rather than a consequence of the world she is from. Thus, the spectator feels they have watched an account, though extraordinarily presented, of deeply personal rather than political significance.
Julie runs at the National Theatre until 8th September
Image © Richard H Smith.