April 19, 2000: Strindberg, Miss Julie

Haymarket. Adapted by Frank McGuinness

A fine adaptation of Strindberg’s play to an English (or perhaps Northern Irish) idiom. A “great house” on the stage: a cavernous, double-level kitchen with an iron circular staircase climbing up out of sight into the flies, and a cat-walk-like entrance about twenty feet up meant to indicate ground-level; and so the floor setting, with its huge stove stage left and long trench table center appears to be dug out of the earth: a basement, to which Miss Julie lowers herself in the very act of entering it.

Spirited, very energetic performances from Christopher Eccleston as Jean (Miss Julie never does find out what his surname is) and Aisling O’Sullivan as Julie, a beautiful woman with luxurious blonde hair, all in white (it made me think of Whistler’s Lady in White, and the associations of doubtful virginity are right). Much overlapping of speeches, and in many other ways as well a sense of tremendous pressure being let out. The Jean is a tall, imposing, athletic man who enters almost on the run, leaps tall tables in a single bound; but O’Sullivan’s Julie is a match for him in her driving intensity; her very indecisiveness has its own energy. These two are opposites and at the same time a perfect match of a mis-match. Catastrophe looms as soon as Julie enters, from the catwalk (i.e., from outside), flushed and excited by her dancing with a mere servant. It is St. John’s Eve, and passions are running high. I had some trouble understanding the accents — they may have been Ulster, especially Jean’s, though Julie’s was a kind of British-British that was something other than English. But the action, with its inexorable movement toward disaster, was abundantly clear.

The director, Michael Boyd (an associate at the National Theatre), had evidently read and taken as a keynote Strindberg’s prefatorial statement about his concept of characterization. No Stanislavskian “spine” here; both Jean and Julie are “weak and vacillating,” are shreds of what was once a coherent characterological costume (Strindberg’s brilliant metaphor for traditional ideas of character type and their relationship to the roles of the traditional repertory company). We are in an age of transition, more hysterical than the preceding one, Strindberg says in his preface. The upshot is a great number of forces interior and exterior at work on these two characters, who are torn apart and defeated by the power of their own desires and fantasies. The character of the Cook (Kristin) played with calculated mental and physical rigidity by a talented young actress, Maxine Peake, out of RADA in 1998. Hers was a difficult task of conveying all the force of traditional social values and mores and of traditional Christian belief while at the same time sharing in the intense energy of the night.

Even the rake of the stage floor spoke at once of the traditional theatre and of the forward-pitching forces driving the action to its climax. The setting helps to realize the ultimate irony of Miss Julie’s predicament: she has descended the spiral staircase and lowered herself fatally in the process; at the end, she ascends up out of sight, not simply to return to her part of the house, but to cut her throat with Jean’s razor.

I liked this production greatly, including the amazing energy and near-ear-splitting din of the revelers who come in at the middle of the play to act out the frenzy of the night’s revelry — and to cover for the duration of time in which we are to suppose Jean and Julie make love in his room. This was Strindberg’s solution to the problem, as he saw it, of how to avoid an interval. It worked. Despite the cavernous dimensions of the stage and its setting, the spirit behind Strindberg’s preference for a small theatre and a small stage came through — although the extreme ornateness of the Haymarket auditorium as rehabilitated in 1994 did militate against Strindberg’s intentions before and after the fact.

We have seen three stunningly good productions, full of excellent acting, in a row. Can the pace and standard be kept up?


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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