sun 21/07/2024

Miss Julie, Royal Exchange, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Miss Julie, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Miss Julie, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Maxine Peake is electrifying in a commendable production of Strindberg's master-servant drama

Maxine Peake: unforgettable as Miss JulieJonathan Keenan

Seeing Miss Julie played in-the-round would, I suspect, have delighted Strindberg. In his preface to the play, he was much exercised about the setting, presuming a proscenium stage: a single set, asymmetrical scenery, no clutter, no “tiresome” exits through doors, no footlights. And so on.

I imagine that he didn’t envisage theatre-in-the-round, but he longed for some way of breaking the custom of formal staging (“nothing left to the imagination”) and tidy dialogue. He wanted actors playing “for the audience, not with it”, sometimes even having their backs to the audience whilst speaking. Inevitably, there’s plenty of that in Sarah Frankcom’s production - and much else that he might have wished for, not least the accomplishment of Maxine Peake in the title role.

Strindberg explores divisions of class and gender, love, lust and hate, nature and nurture

Max Jones’s set is uncluttered – essentially a flagged circle with a refectory table in the middle, some kitchenalia along one side and a large translucent flying saucer of a canopy to compress the arena. The effect from an elevated seat in the first gallery is like looking down on a cockpit, which adds impact to the tender, passionate and fiery exchanges between Miss Julie and her footman Jean (Joe Armstrong).

The play is very much of its time (1888), so shocking in its day that it didn’t get a professional production for 18 years. Superficially, the story is simply that of Julie, a flighty Count’s daughter “full of airs and graces”, venturing fatally below stairs to the kitchen, giving rough servant Jean the come-on and having sex with him (off-stage) – a class-crossing misalliance serious enough to warrant her slitting her own throat in the end. Mind you, there was a family history of madness and suicidal tendencies. And the liaison takes place during the merry-making of Midsummer Night’s Eve drunken revels, though there is little evidence of them in this production. The third character in the mix is Kristin (Carla Henry), the young family cook who knows her place, keeps her head whilst the other two are losing theirs and believes in God’s justice.

Within that framework, Strindberg explores divisions of class and gender, love, lust and hate, nature and nurture. Near the end of the play, after all that has gone on between them, Miss Julie (“call me Julie”) asks Jean: “By the way, what is your surname?” (Rather thrown away in this version when she asks simply “What is your name?”, causing misplaced laughter).

Anyway, it’s too late. Boundaries have been crossed. Miss Julie, over-confident at first, has lowered herself physically and symbolically. Jean, ostensibly servile, has aspirations – he drinks wine from Dijon, whilst Julie drinks beer. He speaks French and he has been a sommelier in a Swiss hotel. Even when they talk of their dreams, Julie’s vision is of wishing to fall from the top of a pillar, whilst Jean’s is of wishing to climb to the top of a slippery tree. Strindberg is heavy-handed with the symbolism.

Maxine Peake gives a performance that touches every nerve, exposes a range of emotion and exploits body language literally down to her fingertips. Near the end, when her pet bird has been brutally decapitated by Jean, she trails her trembling fingers in the blood and turns on him. It’s a chilling detail. Joe Armstrong (pictured above right, with Peake) plays Jean more as a Cockney Jack-the-lad than a well-versed valet. It is difficult to believe in any chemistry between him and Julie, even when they emerge from their fatal liaison, although they do manage to create tension between them at key moments. And they do hit the “irregular” dialogue that Strindberg so wanted.

But one has to wonder how close to the original we get, since the text has been filtered through a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, a dramatist’s adaptation of that by David Eldridge, and Frankcom’s direction. The same trio had previous success here with Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea. This is not a total success, although it is a patient and well-paced production. As a celebration of the centenary of Strindberg’s death it is commendable. Peake’s performance is, however, memorable.

Peake gives a performance that touches every nerve, exposes a range of emotion and exploits body language literally down to her fingertips


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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