After Miss Julie

A version of Strindberg's Miss Julie by Patrick Marber
Donmar Warehouse
(2003)

This is undoubtedly one of the best productions of the year and, somewhat surprisingly for the relatively small Donmar, some tickets are still available. Snap them up now!

Patrick Marber's beautifully judged reworking of Strindberg was originally written for the much-lamented BBC Performance season eight years ago.

It is set in Yorkshire on the day of the Labour Party's election landslide following the Second World War. The updating works well as the play effectively kisses goodbye to the English class system, rather than its Swedish equivalent some 60 years before.

There is very little wrong with Michael Grandage's 90-minute production. He has the courage to operate at what can seem remarkably slow pace, almost reminiscent of a string trio in a minor key, with every note savoured. He is not afraid to leave long silent gaps for example as the cook, Christine, does her job in a gigantic but nevertheless claustrophobic kitchen, created by designer Bunny Christie and subtly lit by Neil Austin.

All three actors played their parts to perfection and in particular, Kelly Reilly, eschewing the American accents that she has recently taken on for The Graduate and Sexual Perversity in Chicago for Lady Di English, will surely win awards in the title role.

When this reviewer attended, apart from giving an awesome performance mixing childlike innocence with sexual aggression, she showed bravery beyond the call of duty. Having knocked a glass off the kitchen table she soon had a gashed right foot and was spilling blood liberally over the flagstones. Eventually, Miss Reilly was forced to play the last half-hour heavily bandaged.

Even without this ultra realism, Patrick Marber's play is gut-wrenchingly authentic. The prim, religious Christine, played by Helen Baxendale, might never be happy with the rakishly handsome chauffeur, John but he is all that she has available. Her disapproval when the beautiful but rather drunk Miss Julie comes below-stairs is well judged.

Richard Coyle plays John with a balanced mix of obedience and insubordination in the face of his mistress' bold approaches. He has already seen enough of her to know both that he is desperately in love with her but also that she has sado-masochistic tendencies and is prone to genetically inherited girlish fantasy. This night,though, is his chance to dream of a wholly different, better future. He knows that it will never come to fruition but he is unable or unwilling to refuse a few hours of heaven.

The mental battles that take place between the three and, in particular, John and Miss Julie are all too believable; and the slaughter of an innocent canary symbolising both the mistress of the house and the class to which she belongs, is very moving.

There were some doubts when Michael Grandage took over from Sam Mendes as to whether he could match the fireworks of his predecessor's last two productions. He has done a pretty good job overall this year and with After Miss Julie has moved into overdrive. Long may it last.

Philip Fisher