August Strindberg translated by Michael Meyer
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Previous productions staged by Elysium Theatre in Manchester were modern plays that might be considered neglected or overlooked. Miss Julie on the other hand is a classic from the past although, with class divisions deeper than ever and rising concern about exploitation of women, its themes remain depressingly relevant.
Director Jake Murray retains the period setting but shifts the location of the play to the North East of England where Elysium Theatre is based, allowing for an instant distinction between the regional accents of the servants and the cut-glass tones of the upper class. In 1888 on Midsummer’s Eve, distinctions between masters and servants blur. Miss Julie (Alice Frankham), daughter of the master of the manor house, scandalises the kitchen maid Christine (Lois Mackie) and the valet John (Danny Solomon) by being over-familiar and dancing with the servants. However, John has ambitions to rise above his station and, when Miss Julie becomes flirtatious, sees an opportunity to escape a life of servitude.
Murray anchors the play in a realistic setting. Louis Price’s kitchen set, dominated by a massive metal stove, is strongly authentic. This sense of realism is enhanced by the imaginative casting of local drama students from the ALRA North and the Arden Schools of Theatre as the rowdy mob of servants. As well as adding to the growing sense of anarchy and events getting out of hand, the students have the opportunity to gain valuable on-stage experience. It is a puzzle why more companies do not emulate this commendable approach.
Considering Miss Julie has a reputation as a bleak tragedy, Michael Meyer’s translation, with muttered asides from the characters, finds surprising levels of humour in the grim story.
Murray balances the realistic setting with an atmosphere of yearning and fantasising wish-fulfillment. Both of the main characters are desperate to escape the social class into which they were born. However, it is hard to imagine that Miss Julie and John really believe their plans will work. They behave as if infantised by their circumstances and, like children at play, rattle out scatterbrained ideas and dismiss them just as quickly. In the closing sequence, they act like naughty children panicking at the thought of a stern father returning.
The sexual element in the play begins discreetly with Miss Julie’s subtle domination of John but the company do not flinch from the nasty misogynistic aspect of John’s thoughtless dismissal of her after they have had sex.
If Miss Julie and John are children, Lois Mackie makes Christine most definitely an adult. There is a strange tranquillity about Mackie suggesting that, of all the characters, Christine does not need the comfort of illusions and can cope with the harsh realities of life.
Danny Solomon’s version of John is very much in the tradition of Malvolio—he looks down on his fellow servants and cannot hide his distaste for the way in which Miss Julie mingles with people who are below her station. Solomon suggests a character lacking the courage to realise his ambitions: capable of manipulating and exploiting Miss Julie but unable to offer any support when needed.
There is an aching vulnerability about Alice Frankham’s Miss Julie. Frankham emphasises her naivety; the sense that even when she seems to be in control Miss Julie does not realise she is getting out of her depth. Frankham brings fragility to a character often portrayed as aloof and controlling. Towards the conclusion of the play, it is hard to deny Miss Julie would, in contemporary society, probably be treated for mental illness.
With Miss Julie, Elysium Theatre shows they are just as capable at staging the classics are they are with contemporary plays.
Reviewer: David Cunningham