Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: Miss Julie (August Strindberg), MTC production 2016

Today we went to see the second of our seven-play season subscription plays for the MTC's 2016 program - August Strindberg's 1888 naturalistic masterpiece, Miss Julie.

Seven-play seasons was a thing we used to do for the four or five years before the birth of our first daughter in 2003. Indeed, we saw the final such play, a production of Ovid's Metamorphoses from memory, when I was massively pregnant with her (there was some concern over whether a middle-of-aisle seat would hold my wide-berthed self, as I recollect).

Since the coming of the young 'uns, though, regular theatre-going has been both financially and logistically impractical, and although we have seen a couple of movies each year at the cinema, a few music concerts (Dead Can Dance, Fleet Foxes, Neil & Tim Finn, Mumford & Sons, kd lang) and I have been to a few writers' talks, over the past 13 years, we have not actually been to the theatre to see a play.

This year, we decided to break the drought by giving each other MTC season passes for Christmas. I won't lie, it's not cheap, although we did save some money by opting for Wednesday matinee performances (which suit us better anyway, as we don't need to organise babysitting). But, so far, it's been a great decision.

The first play we saw was Duncan Macmillan's Lungs, which we enjoyed, but I felt the ending was weak and the content didn't stay with me to any great extent. Today, however, we saw Strindberg's Miss Julie, and we were both blown away by it.

Strindberg's play picks up his own ideas of naturalism in a compelling, disturbing plot built around a somewhat inchoate meta-theme of social Darwinism. It revolves around only three characters: the unstable, high-handed, tragic and reckless daughter of a Count, Miss Julie; the thrusting, resentful, intelligent and often brutal valet, Jean; and the character who represents virtue, balance and ethical action, the much-put-upon kitchen servant, Kristine.

In keeping with the principles of naturalism, the plot deals with real, complicated human issues, in a simple setting (the action never really leaves the kitchen), and contains virtually no subplots or distractions - the play focuses with whip-crack sharpness on the developing relationship and dialogue between Miss Julie and Jean, and the underlying debate about class, gender and the future than drives it.

The MTC production sticks admirably to this simplicity, choosing a clean-lined set and minimal costume changes, and adhering to turn of the century aesthetics - a wise choice for this play, I feel, as playing around with visual modernisation would have been a distraction from the appreciation of the powerful contemporary resonances of Strindberg's ideas and dialogue. The film device, whereby the actors were screened live on a large overhead screen at the same time as they were performing the action in various stages, worked well, adding a touch of disorientation and hyperactivity to the mood of certain key scenes. (I did find that, for me, I had to focus on either the screen or the actors to avoid vertigo, but as I have wonky vision, I think this is unlikely to affect others the same way).

On the other hand, the script of the play has been considerably altered to make the language more contemporary (and not just with the liberal application of "fucks") and I think this works in a very potent way. Some of Strindberg's dialogue is very much of its time and place; the MTC script picks up the same concepts and presents them in plausible modern parlance, and I think this is why the play resonated so much with a 2016 audience.

Although Strindberg said himself that the play was primarily about the Darwinian struggle for dominance between the old, fading landed elites and the new, upcoming entrepeneurial classes, both my partner and I saw many other themes and resonances in it. (This, also, was probably intentional - one aspect of Strindberg's naturalism was his refusal to give characters simplistic, monotonal motivations, because human beings are complex and their actions are motivated by many, sometimes contradictory, experiences, drives, and desires).

Miss Julie, for example, is, particularly at the beginning of the play, clearly an arrogant, feckless, careless, wealthy woman who lacks any understanding of the lives and motivations of her servants, or any concern at all for their wellbeing. Robin McLeavy plays her with a hectic, fidgeting verve that suits the instability of the character perfectly.

Her commanding of Kristine to give up the Midsummer Night celebrations in order that Kristine can make a disgusting-smelling abortofacient for Miss Julie's dog is a good example of this; it does not occur to Miss Julie that her demand is unreasonable or unkind, or that, as Jean points out with some heat, she treats her dog more softly and gently than fellow human beings. Kristine's dignity is highlighted (not just at this point, but throughout) in sharp contrast to Miss Julie's flyaway folly and callousness.

Miss Julie's entire interaction with Jean across that long, hot night is an exercise in not just folly, but utter disregard for Jean's safety - the consequences for him of their eventual liaison are likely to be severe and permanent. Many times, while purporting to be honest, she slips into calling her servants and their ilk "scum" - a term she later tries to generalise to all people, without any real success. Her lack of understanding of the lives of the people that serve her persists, although she shows preliminary glimmerings of trying to comprehend. Even these first steps, though, are patronising; hearing Jean describe his childhood and life, she exclaims, "It must be so terrible to be poor!" Jean snaps back, "Not terrible, just hard". Moving from indifference to infantilising pity is not, as Jean sees immediately, a huge leap in thinking.

However, Miss Julie isn't as simple, or as simply detestable, as that, either. Strindberg's true modernity shows in his masterful display of intersectionality, long before such a concept was explicated. Miss Julie has class and wealth privilege in spades, but she is also at the mercy of some extremely toxic ideas about women and female behaviour, Jean tells her, with utter contempt, that her servants despise her for her flirtatious and familiar behaviour; they believe her to be a combination of a tease and a whore, and don't hesitate to say so, in blistering terms, once alcohol loosens their tongues.

Miss Julie's own impassioned rejection of her role as marital cattle, and the harrowing backstory of her free-thinking mother's subjugation, draws on this paradox, which is brought to its ultimate conclusion when Jean is busily constructing an elaborate fantasy about how the two of them can open a first-class hotel in Switzerland. "With what money?" Miss Julie asks. Jean replies that as he will bring his skills and expertise, she can provide the payroll. Miss Julie laughs, a bitter, incredulous sound, and tells him, "But don't you understand that I own nothing? Not this house, not the horses, not my own clothes, not the money ... It's all in my father's name. I'm as poor as you." It's at this moment that it's really brought to bear that Miss Julie's position is entirely dependent on, and mediated by, her father and his continuing goodwill. Cast out from his graces, she will indeed have no more than Jean - arguably, in fact, much less, as she has no resilience and no practical skills.

Jean is also a complex character, and played with brilliantly contained passion by Mark Leonard Winter. Like Miss Julie, he's neither entire villain nor entire hero, but speaks a lot of (class-based) truth to power while also engaging in a lot of (gender-based) obnoxiousness to both Miss Julie and Kristine. My husband said that Jean reminded him in a lot of ways of Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey - there's the same thrusting sense of deal-making, the same desire to be free of the yoke of the master combined with the same grudging, almost reflexive, respect for the old order. Like Thomas, Jean isn't really likeable, although his revelation of some of his wounds does mitigate this somewhat. It's my opinion that in the struggle between him and Miss Julie, he emerges ascendant not because he is the better or even the stronger person, but because he is ultimately more ruthless than she.

One of the biggest changes that the MTC production makes to Miss Julie is the ending, which gives Kristine an entirely new speech, alters (at least implicitly) the outcome, and underlines a point that the play has been making from the very first scene of cooking in the kitchen: that, in a very real sense, Kristine is the only hero of the piece. Kristine, unlike either Jean or Miss Julie, both knows who she is, and what she will accept from others.

Kristine is the character most altered from Strindberg's original work, in which she was little but a fairly limited, conventional, moralising servant. In the MTC's production, Kristine is the voice of ethical reason, calling continually to both Jean and Miss Julie to turn back from self- and other-destructive action and towards a mindset of respect. At the end of the day, she is the only one who need not ask forgiveness for the events of that hot, fretful night. Played with dignity and depth by Zahra Newman, Kristine emerges as the only character who knows the reasons for her decisions, and stands behind them without shame.

Overall, we found this a powerful, contemporary and flawlessly executed version of one of the great pieces of modernist naturalistic theatre. We're still talking about it, and I would not be surprised if Miss Julie visits my dreaming for many nights to come.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! Kathy.
    Thank you for sharing a wonderful experience.