Francesca Duke reviews August Strindberg’s heady existentialist drama, and takes a closer look at whether its reimagined setting is entirely successful.
Julie takes place on the night of the title character’s 33rd birthday party, in the glitzy London home of her wealthy father. As her maid Kristina puts it, Julie is “technicolour:” a larger-than-life socialite, first seen parading around the stage draped head to foot in sequins. But she is also fragile, burdened with a tragic family history and a profound sense of existential anxiety. As Julie’s party spirals out of control, she embarks on a sexual relationship with Jean, her father’s chauffeur and maid’s fiancé, with catastrophic consequences.
The plot remains true to the 1888 Strindberg text, but the updated context of 21st century London lacks the rigid social hierarchy of 19th century Sweden. As a result, the class divide between Julie and Jean which underpins much of the original is missing from this version. Of course, Julie is still Jean’s employer, but one cannot help wondering if the outcry caused by a woman sleeping with her servant in a contemporary setting would really be so great that it would provoke the characters to run away to Cape Verde, as they plan to do in this production. Jean and Kristina are both played by actors of colour, but if this was intended to signify their lower social status in the pecking order of the play, then more discussion of their backstories is needed in the script. As it is, the main crisis – Julie and Jean’s inability to continue their relationship if they remain in her father’s house – feels rather exaggerated.
The acting, however, more than makes up for this. Vanessa Kirby shines as Julie, evoking pity from the audience one minute and contempt the next, punctuated with a wonderfully dry wit that is reminiscent of her role as Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean is brimming with suave charisma, but soon reveals his darker desire to control and conquer women, brutally informing Julie that he would have enjoyed sleeping with her more if “the conquest hadn’t been so easy”. Thalissa Teixeira’s Kristina, on the other hand, remains calm and dignified throughout, and her unwavering loyalty to both her mistress and her fiancé means that, despite not often being physically on stage, she is constantly playing on the minds of the audience, and indeed, the other characters.
Director Carrie Cracknell’s staging, particularly of the ensemble scenes, is also impressive. The play opens with flashing lights, pounding bass music and a crowd of intoxicated partygoers, and the energy they create together is tangible. So too is the loneliness that Julie feels despite being among so many people: she stands alone centre stage, while her fellow cast members writhe around her, bumping into her on occasion, but largely ignoring her. Physical theatre techniques are cleverly incorporated into these scenes. One particular highlight is the use of a body double for Kirby, who appears out of nowhere, giving the impression that Julie is in some sort of dissociative state, watching herself dancing with her so-called ‘friends,’ but not feeling entirely present. Tom Scutt’s modern, minimalistic stage design, with a rectangular frame of white light around the perimeter, shows us how Julie, for all her privilege, ultimately owns nothing of value and will most likely fade into oblivion, as the stage itself seems to do at the end.
Strindberg purists may well take issue with several elements of this production: it is, at times, a far-cry from the naturalistic version the playwright intended. However, whilst I am not convinced by the new social context, I find that Stenham’s interspersion of masterfully delivered dialogue with vibrant crowd scenes and innovative stage-design makes the play eminently watchable.
Polly Stenham’s Julie is now streaming on https://www.ntathome.com/.