August Strindberg, in a version by Frank McGuinness
The Peter Hall Company
Theater Royal, Bath
Scarcely has one Swede packed his bags and headed home to the fjords when another arrives -- courtesy of a new production of Miss Julie at Bath. But whereas Sven was impassive; unfailingly courteous and infamously a man of few words, Strindberg raged like a maniac at just about everyone; first tried to kill himself aged eight - sleeping with a pistol under his pillow thereafter, just in case - and wrote over 70 plays, more than twice as many as Shakespeare - not to mention suicide notes.
But August, like Sven, also endured a torrid time with the critics. Miss Julie, which had to wait fifteen years to be staged, drew fire on publication: References to excrement, filthy rags and a "protracted foulness" which even "the use of tongs" would not, apparently, mitigate, were the order of the day. The problem the though was not a lack of passion in the play - but too much. Strindberg's frankness about sex - we learn that Miss Julie is menstruating - shocked, as did his depiction of the relationship between men and women and the upper and lower classes as fiercely adversarial.
In many ways Strindberg beat a path for others to follow and one finds in the play, for example, intimations of Harold Pinter. As with Pinter, all the action is confined to one room, in this case the basement kitchen of a country manor house. What takes place in the room over the course of the ninety minutes between the cast of three is a struggle for power in which the chief weapons are words, cf The Caretaker, or No Man's Land.
It is Midsummer Eve and just about everyone, upstairs and downstairs, is on the lash, kicking up their heels or both, save for Jean (Richard Dormer) and his intended Kristin (Pauline Turner), who are finishing their chores and thinking themselves about a dance. Jean's talk is all of Miss Julie, daughter of the laird of the manor, who is attracting ridicule by her wild behaviour which includes dancing with the servants, among them, Jean.
Enter Miss Julie and cue the start of a long night's journey into day. Two years ago, Patrick Marber transposed the action from Scandinavia to England, post-1945, for his adaptation of the play, After Miss Julie, at the Donmar. Frank McGuiness, who provides this adaptation for director Rachel O'Riordan, relocates the play in rural Northern Ireland at the turn of the nineteenth century. The move makes sense of Jean's fear of and loathing for his Anglo-Irish employers and determination to get on and get out, which is also combined with a sense of pride and being even a minor member of an important family. It also allows McGuinness to ratchet up the ferocity of the subsequent exchanges between Julie and Jean, with the former declaring furiously she'd like to drink wine from out of his skull.
Miss Julie makes considerable demands of its actors - and audience. Strindberg in a preface, wrote that he had eliminated intervals, adding that if his audience could sit through a lecture, sermon, or parliamentary debate for ninety minutes then they ought to be able to "endure" a play.
Andrea Riseborough, an icy Puritan in Measure for Measure, also in repertory, has a juicy plum of a part which she attacks with vigour, sashaying round Kevin Rigdon's beautiful set, atmospherically lit by Peter Mumford, now teasing, now bored. "Who can be temperate, furious in a moment?" asked Macbeth. Strindberg asks the actress playing Miss Julie to be just that. Unfortunately while Riseborough nails down ennui, affectation and coquetry nicely, she doesn't manage to find the depths of lust which see her character get rogered from behind over a kitchen table.
Dormer though locates Jean's rage and desire which are accompanied by a fear of his employer which is even stronger than both, instilled as it is by a lifetime of servility. There is fine work too from Turner, a comparatively passive participant for the most part until the denouement which sees Kristin find a sense of pride and place which escapes both Jean and Julie.
Ultimately though, as with another Swede's performances, enthusiasm and attention grow errant some time before the final whistle. I remained similarly unmoved by Marber's adaptation so I rather suspect that Strindberg is largely to blame. As with the England Cup squad, what seems on paper to offer the prospect of thrills galore proves in reality to be less than the sum of the individual parts. Or, as Sven was wont to say after a disappointing game: "First half good; second half not so good."
Reviewer: Pete Wood