Miss Julie

August Strindberg, translated by Kenneth McLeish
Rose, Kingston upon Thames

Production photo

Back in 2006, Rachel Pickup was no doubt cast for her slender beauty as Helen in Peter Stein’s RSC Troilus and Cressida and again, more recently, in The 39 Steps at the Criterion. But she now makes a bid for theatrical stardom with her grace coupled with versatility, playing the leading roles in both Peter Hall’s staging of Bedroom Farce and this revival by Stephen Unwin of Strindberg’s greatest hit.

These two plays run in repertory until 28th November in the Rose Theatre’s “Behind Closed Doors” season, one taking place in three suburban boudoirs, while the Strindberg is set in a below-stairs kitchen backed by a forest of sky-high pine tree-trunks, several pieces of solid wooden furniture downstage to delineate the playing area.

Lucy Briers’ Christine opens the play with a live cookery demonstration as she prepares an evening meal for Daniel Betts’ ambitious, cocksure Jean, his lordship’s obedient steward, who also happens to be betrothed to Christine.

But into this arena steps Miss Julie, not the usual dominatrix with a riding crop and leather boots , but a radiant young aristocrat looking for a bit of midsummer rough with her father’s personal manservant, dressed to kill in a long dress, her embraceable waist emphasised by a decorative, close-hugging corset, her blonde hair piled high.

With a combination of Julie’s dazzling display of feminine self assurance and Jean’s readiness to oblige, the seduction is both powerfully erotic and almost mutual, starting with a snatched kiss and slapped face, followed by nose to nose, thigh to thigh intimacy before the inevitable sexual encounter takes place on Jean’s nearby bed.

But once the deed has been done and virginity lost forever, this bold, sexy young woman becomes a terrified teenager reduced to craven submission and to an inevitable course of events, briefly brightening with schoolgirl enthusiasm as she dreams of becoming a famous hostess to Jean’s Swiss lakeside hotelier, while offering the luckless Christine a job as their cook and maid-of-all-work.

Jean’s cool but savage beheading of Julie’s pet finch is given full visceral horror on a butchers’ chopping block, while Christine obediently mops up the blood. But in this version of events we are happily spared the fatal climax with Jean’s cut-throat razor, which here takes place offstage. But an exciting switchback of emotions makes Miss Pickup’s performance in the title role the most compelling I can recall, making it worth crossing London to see this theatre star in the making.

Reviewer: John Thaxter

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