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Miss Julie

by on 18 September 2022


Miss Julie

by August Strindberg, adapted by Howard Brenton

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 24th September

Review by Louis Mazzini  

First performed privately in Copenhagen on the 14th March 1889, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie was, on its first publication in an English translation, deemed to be “a play so revolting that even the plot is impossible to describe”.  After more than a century, what was once shocking and novel in feeling and technique, feels old-fashioned even when re-presented in Howard Brenton’s modern language adaptation.  Strindberg was an exponent of naturalism and what he described as forsøksteater (experimental theatre).  His aim was to bring about a radical change in the presentation of drama by posing issues and questions for the audience without providing resolution or answers, while at the same time encouraging producers to allow actors to perform naturally and even to extemporise.  However, while Strindberg was originally seen as challenging orthodoxy with respect to the role of women, today – in the wake of the #MeToo movement – he can appear like simply another male playwright relying on over-familiar tropes about women and their motivations and, as is the case with some of the other great nineteenth century melodramas, the once startling conclusion of Miss Julie is today as predictable as it is unconvincing.

This new production by Richmond Shakespeare Society respects some of Strindberg’s precepts, and he would have welcomed the natural way that some lines were addressed, with an actor facing upstage and with his back to the audience.  However, he would have been less content with the fact that much of the dialogue was delivered between characters positioned in a line more or less parallel to the audience, and he might also have questioned the concept behind one scene in which the actors perform in slow motion while, inevitably, their props do not. 

Miss Julie is set in Sweden at the Summer solstice, the time to welcome the changing of the seasons and to celebrate fertility.  The principals are very strong, with Beckis Cooper in the title role; an actress of great power, by turns teasing and dominant, Cooper gives a compelling performance as a woman in control of everything but herself.  Jack Lumb is more than her equal as the scheming Jean, Miss Julie’s father’s valet, while Danielle Thompson, as Kristen, brings a cold dignity to her role as Jean’s partner in deceit.  The other servants – a group of crude Midsommar mechanicals led by a wolfish Terry Bedell – appear in only one scene but it is certainly memorable. 

By contrast with the strength of the cast, the production itself feels slightly inchoate and the succession of events like a succession of scenes.  In addition, something is lacking in the shifting interplay between the characters: some of this flows from the naturalistic script – in which much is unspoken or unseen and left for the audience to determine – but on the strength of this production Miss Julie remains a theatrical time capsule rather than a play with startling contemporary relevance.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Louis Mazzini, September 2022

Photography by Pete Messum

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