August Strindberg, translated by Michael Meyer
Elysium Theatre Company and Queen's Hall Arts Centre, Hexham
Gala Theatre, Durham
There have been so many versions of Strindberg’s play (arguably his greatest, although I might just go for The Father or The Ghost Sonata): in After Miss Julie Patrick Marber set the story in 1945, focusing on a celebration of the end of the War and Labour’s victory in the General Election; Zinnie Harris (Julie) ramps up the decadence and adds industrial unrest, whilst Yael Farber (Mies Julie) moves it lock, stock and barrel to South Africa on Freedom day in 2012.
You might well think that Strindberg’s original is an archetype.
And actually it might very well be. Unlike his contemporary Ibsen, whose plays are mainly plot-focused, Strindberg’s naturalism (which in The Ghost Sonata verges on expressionism) in Miss Julie brings characterisation centre-stage and makes huge demands on the actors whose characters are not only under the sway of their emotions but also hidebound by class distinction (Miss Julie’s choosing to dance with a servant is shocking enough to the other servants, but to do so twice…!) and hemmed in by a restrictive attitude to sexual relations.
Then there’s the symbolism of this happening on Midsummer Eve, the lightest night of the year, and, ever-present in our consciousness (sometimes in our hearing and, on one occasion, filling the stage) are the servants who are celebrating the Midsummer festival, both of these things providing a huge contrast to the bleakness of the personal drama unfolding in front of us.
(Incidentally, at each venue on the tour, the servants are played by a local community cast, in this case from Durham Dramatic Society, Durham High School for Girls and Durham Student Theatre.)
Elysium’s cast—Alice Frankham (Miss Julie), Danny Solomon (John) and Lois Mackie (Christine), under the meticulous direction of Jake Murray—really bring these characters to life. Whilst Ibsen may have us rooting for one and hating another (Nora and Krogstad in A Doll’s House spring to mind), Strindberg does not pass judgment nor does he encourage us to do so. We see everything about the characters, warts and all, and it is to the credit of the company that we are held, almost at times transfixed, by what we see.
In every way, this is a fine production of an important and powerful piece of theatre.
I haven’t seen Yael Farber’s version but I have seen those by Patrick Marber and Zinnie Harris and I have to say that (in my not always very humble opinion!) the original is still the best.
We don’t see enough of Strindberg—perhaps even after all this time audiences still find him a little “difficult” in a way that they don’t react to his contemporaries Ibsen or Chekhov—so thanks to Elysium for filling this gap. And congratulations to them for not being afraid to test themselves and their audience. Last year I saw them for the first time in Jez Butterworth’s The River, a play which I described as “disconcerting, puzzling and often unsettling,” and now they follow it with Miss Julie. Many thanks and I look forward to what you bring us next!
Miss Julie tours to The Exchange in North Shields from 28 to 30 March and to the Majestic Theatre in Darlington on 3 and 4 April.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan