Muddy Reviews: After Miss Julie, Theatre Royal, Brighton
An ‘erotic psychological thriller’ is perhaps an unexpected billing for a play that has its origins in the late 19th century but After Miss Julie, running at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday night, is an updated take on August Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie and it ramps up the tensions of its predecessor.
The play is a one act three-hander. Fiancées John and Christina are servants in a stately home and the titular Miss Julie the daughter of the house. Miss Julie – played by Helen George of Call the Midwife and Strictly Come Dancing fame – begins to draw ridicule for a drunken flirtation with John at a ball above stairs, before progressing into more dangerous territory below, the stain on her reputation becoming uncomfortably real.
Patrick Marber, who wrote Closer and adapted Notes on a Scandal for the big screen penned his take on Miss Julie in 1995 and has moved the action to just after the Second World War. So, this play about class and sexual politics now runs against a night of party politics – the eve of the first post war election with Labour’s Clement Atlee about to sweep to power.
The election backdrop is significant. Miss Julie is something of a champagne Socialist – switching between urging John not to stand on ceremony and protesting her support for class fluidity, to snapping into sneering ridicule at his work worn hands and ill fitting suit when her personal power is threatened. Meanwhile, John has, like many ex soldiers, emerged from the recent war more questioning of social deference.
It’s a powerful piece and all the more disturbing for its update. The sexual power struggles are more graphic and tinged with violence and what happens off stage is unambiguous. John’s motives in playing up to Miss Julie’s flirtations are less clear. He may be grabbing an opportunity with a woman he has always loved, or at least lusted after, or, his purpose maybe a darker act of revenge for the frustrations of his class. It may even be a case of cold-hearted financial ambition as he hatches a fantasy for a future in New York.
The theme of commanding and obeying is ever present – between servants and masters, between lovers in bed and between the weak and the strong as emotions overspill. “Kiss my shoe” Miss Julie commands John in an early moment that mixes class power with sexuality. The way in which John responds sets the course for the rest of the play.
All three performances are strong and though Miss Julie and John are alone on the stage for much of the action – an exhausting feat in itself, I enjoyed Christina as the scorned woman who manages to emerge with the most dignity of the three.
Miss Julie was one of my set texts back at A Level and I remember being taught that Strindberg was an exponent of theatrical realism and the play an early example of ‘kitchen sink drama’.
The set for this production remains true to this ideal, a faithful and detailed reproduction of a period kitchen, with tiled walls and stove and functioning sink, with its grubby waste pipe visible. The doors beyond are layered so you get a real sense of more house behind the scenes.
The one piece of modern effect allowed is a clever projection of John and Miss Julie dancing provocatively to jazz music at the ball above. Whether it’s a slice of the drama above stairs or all in Christina’s head is unclear but it might just also be a humorous nod to Helen George’s time on Strictly.
After Miss Julie is on at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday 9 July. Tickets cost from £16.90 atgtickets.com