Miss Julie

Review by Simon Jenner

 

Strange the suicide of one exceptionally gifted woman, Victoria Benedictsson (1852-88) should inspire both Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Her own play The Enchantment triumphantly premiered at the National in 2000 proved as novelist and dramatist she was way more interesting than even the two characters she inspired.

Deserted by powerful critic Georges Brandes who championed those male writers, Benedictsson was feared because she wrote. Such agency’s never given to Miss Julie or Hedda Gabler. They’re trapped in patriarchy, no way out. The original was more original, almost hounded to death.

Finally NVT can mount their Miss Julie. This version by Michael Robinson is achingly close to Strindberg’s ferocious dissection of real transgression on a Midsummer’s Eve where licence to servants perpetuates the hierarchy that threatens anything more.

This excellent uncut production follows every ripple and twitch of plot, all Strindberg’s febrile switchbacks where many can be smoothed out. It’s as if a thick dark varnish has been removed from a portrait revealing a shockingly tactile flesh. It’s thrilling, with a fresh ratcheting-up of its form invoking Greek tragedy.

Directed by Mark Lester, the Set Design’s by Simon Glazier and George Walter. A black kitchen range and black stove with lovingly sourced copper pots and utensils (props by Gabrielle Bowning excel), soon sizzling with liver, a sink/waste chute stage right, and above the range, various glass jars on shelves. It’s a tight set with, stage-right, a Palladian-style entrance onto Jean’s room, and along the stage right wall in this L-shaped set, that sink, a cupboard above and further along a small red-faced fireplace. In front, slightly downstage set at a slight diagonal, a table set with three chairs and various glasses, is where nearly everything happens.

Lighting Design Strat Mastoris emphasizes light on midsummer’s eve, darkness, streaming morning. Sound designer Ian Black ensures the peasants Strindberg asks for are neatly – once or twice raucously – suggested offstage. At one point the singing rises to a terrible clarity, like judgement.

And period costumes speak in the change or removal of a scarlet livery jacket to civilian Sunday black, the unbuttoning of a waistcoat, the donning of a hat never worn except when leaving for good; the sudden apparition of Miss Julie in full light green/white pattern dress and sage green cape to make anything possible.

It’s this precision of Strindberg’s earlier naturalistic phase than can get overlooked, losing force by broad strokes of the extreme: Strindberg’s intensity is like a scalpel carefully probing a nerve, the wince not the scream.

Nik Balfe’s Jean is unusually urbane. Dazzling with a moustache and Edwardian gentleman’s handsomeness to snare a Miss Julie, though perhaps lacking the rasp of a self-proclaimed working man. There’s an argument a valet like him cultivates his accent, but Balfe’s is the most exquisite Jean I’ve seen, who could blend into a drawing room.

Balfe mixes a sneer of command with a twitch of servility when the bell strikes: indeed he’s literally frozen by it at the end. It’s far cry from his uncorking stolen wine from the Count’s cellar, his love of fine living – in this production Jean flourishes a swirl, demands ‘One of the glasses, this wine demands respect’ then tastes the vintage pronouncing: ‘Excellent. Great depth, but a little too cold.’

With Balfe you see – convincingly – Jean’s mastery of several languages makes him a natural proprietor of a hotel near Lake Como, should he get the chance: the pipe-dream he proposes to Julie. Someone who aspires to another class, crucially not overthrowing it.

Balfe relishes this binary Jean, someone who repeatedly resists Julie’s danger, and in this production is provoked slowly. His suave containment makes a collapse to servility dismayingly real. Balfe only lacks the danger of the greatest Jeans to make his conquest and collapse the more shocking.

From the outset Miss Julie’s presence is signalled by Jean’s reporting her overstepping the bounds by cavorting with the gamekeeper. It suggests that at twenty-five she’s exploding with frustration – personal as well as sexual – and the legacy of her mother’s ferocious actions transmitting themselves. Unlike Kristin and Jean, she lacks even a limited agency, since the only people she’s permitted are titled pauvre types one of whom – Jean reports – Julie ‘made jump over the riding crop’, though deems him handsome enough. That was the lawyer fiancé dismissed.

Victoria Storm’s Miss Julie is volatile, mercurial under stiff manners, shuddering tectonic emotions that’ll pitch her down from the precipice she dreams she’s on. That might suggest someone who loses her aristocratic poise. Storm never does. The stiff sneer persists here, pitched between obnoxious entitlement and trembling need. It’s a Julie less sexy than some, more flinchingly naked: you long for her to stop playing with Jean’s kisses and escape. It’s there even in her own transgressive nursing early on when she removes dust from Jean’s eye. ‘Keep still…Do as you’re told! Oh, you’re trembling, big man that you are – Such arms!’ There’s more than one transgression, one class betrayal.

What Storm brings is an edge of cruelty that can flip to tenderness, a capacity to remove layers of privilege slowly – sometimes it shrugs back when Jean oversteps her sense of what she should; but then sloughs off. The detail of her distress, her explosions, her collapses are impressive; one third-adamantine, one third Amazonian lover, one third child.

This isn’t without her disavowal of Jean, their circling of desire, resentment, betrayal. When Jean dispatches her one living tie to the house she explodes: ‘You think I can’t stand the sight of blood… I’d like to see your blood, your brains on the block… you think I love you, just because my womb desired your seed…’ Jean’s previous refusal to say he loves her ’in this house’ brings its reward. He’d reflect he was right not to humour Julie even that far.

Cata Lindegaard’s Kristin throughout owns an agency and low-key, persistent sexual ownership. She knows her ‘engagement’ to Jean is a casual sexual convenience, it’s how working-class people can enjoy any lassitude in service. Initially she hopes. Kristin though refuses the also-ran. ‘That stupid thing with Jean. I don’t care a fig about that but… if you try to trick him into running away… I’ll stop you.’ She delivers too the coup-de-grace: ‘I’ll tell the groom not to let any horses be taken out.’ She invokes God’s grace where pointedly ‘the least shall be greatest.’ Kristin’s no longer a simple lightning-rod of prejudice and class order, with her triumphant ‘has the Count’s cook ever gone with a stable boy, or the pig man?’ It’s left for Jean in a final dismissing kindness to reverse that edict.

The outbursts, the intimate revelations of Jean’s desire for Julie even as a boy, her revelations of her mother’s arson, all bonding gambits show us another possible side, always defeated by conditioning. From the desperate ‘Kill me… I hate you, I despise you., there’s blood between us now’ which still has Jean command a getaway, after Kristin’s intervention Julie begs Jean to pretend he’s the commanding Count and she’s him. ‘One last service…. will me to do it.’

Strindberg’s excoriating class-reversal has even more kinks to work out after that. In this production you see hope ebb long before that ring heralding the Count’s return. Balfe’s Jean recognizes far earlier in the text how this will fall out, and so does Storm’s Julie, as if she’s leading a posthumous existence, indeed as she says she’s asleep. That’s because we receive this one-hour-forty-five production uncut and Lester refuses the easy ratcheting up and conventional shocker. The end is like life-blood draining away. It’s what Strindberg meant. See it.

Simon Jenner