I’ve seen the original ‘Miss Julie’ quite a few times. Strindberg’s classic is a powerful indictment on class and examines the perils of defying strict social conventions. I like the original, firmly set in the late 1800’s and although it can feel like a period piece, it still has themes that resonate today.
But- surprise, surprise: Simon Stone has rewritten Strindberg’s play. That’s his thing. Simon Stone after (Strindberg, Ibsen, Seneca, O’Neill, Brecht). One might argue that perhaps he could have a go at writing his own narrative but after seeing some of Belvoir’s acting and directing buddies have a turn at putting pen to paper and watching those plays disappear into a fiery pit of hell, at least Stone knows his strengths and for the most part, they do work. More surprising is how much I enjoyed Stone’s version (helped tremendously probably by the fact that he didn’t direct it so he couldn’t up the stakes and have Christine screaming like a banshee on a revolve as she prepared dinner).
There is a great deal to commend Stone’s play (after Strindberg). Director Leticia Caceres has taken Stone’s work (after Strindberg) and let it simmer until it overflows as an ultimate revenge tragedy. It does speak to the current generation of audience goers, tapping into one of the only social mores still considered an unbreakable convention today- sleeping with a teenager (bad enough) but also one that you are meant to serve and protect (much, much worse). By making Miss Julie sixteen and a virgin, Stone (after Strindberg) heightens the themes of political and social ambition, familial neglect and a desperate and misguided need for love and attention. So when middle-aged Jean (Brendan Cowell) tosses aside fiancé and housekeeper Christine (Blazey Best) to act on the temptations of his young charge Miss Julie (Taylor Ferguson), this barely legal relationship has you reciting child protection legislation from your seat and only disaster can ensue. Stone’s (after Strindberg) choice to include the naked aftermath of Miss Julie and Jean’s passion in the hotel room increases how uncomfortable the audience are with the action that has taken place, especially as Jean sets about controlling Miss Julie through sexual degradation and humiliation. Even Christine’s response to Jean’s actions are humiliating- sexually and domestically. We see the contrast in the seemingly calm rationality of Christine’s compromise or blackmail to Miss Julie’s passionate response to her rejection. Now normally this would set me off on a tirade of Stone’s (after Strindberg) desire to objectify women but Strindberg (before Stone) has plenty of original text that does exactly this and Stone (after Strindberg…ok, you get the point) has just heightened it to reflect popular culture and concerns of today…well…of all ages actually.
What I most enjoyed was Stone twisting the final outcome of ‘Miss Julie’ that actually, as horrifying as it is, feels so right. If you take the child away and then remove the promises made, she won’t sit quietly and take it. With the fervour of a teenage girl spurned, it will fuel a desire to hurt and destroy. I must admit, I didn’t feel for any of the characters and wondered then how powerful the play really was if I dislike each and every one of them. Any pity I may have felt was negated by their actions throughout the play. The only sorrow I felt was for the budgie. But this play is thoroughly engaging and the choices made are strong and layered.
Directorially, Caceres has found great ways to show the contrast of characters, choices, action and environment. It starts with the design. Robert Cousins’ set conveys Act One’s clean lines, affluent and open space, white and neutral sanitised kitchen and living area contrasted to Act Two’s chaotic, dingy and functional hotel room. It not only shows the emotionless home juxtaposed to emotions out of control but also we see the house is stripped of warmth and the hotel is stripped of order. This is enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting of the exposed light of Act One and the shadowy secrets of Act Two. Neither space flatters nor showcases the needs of those who abide within. Even the way Jean speaks forced French opposed to Miss Julie’s natural flow highlights the different circles and education our characters have.
The music that barrages its audience, composed by The Sweats, at the start and finish is another one of Stone’s trademark moments and utilised by Caceres. It signposts for us this discordant world we are about to enter and then the brutality of the finish. The play’s conversational opening with Christine and Jean, ground us in the normality of events and action and until Miss Julie enters, flinging her shoes and storming off, clearly upset like a precocious teenager, we are seduced by the domestic every day of the space (and it made me very hungry, lusting after the salmon risotto) but the music at the start tells us that this world is a natural disaster waiting to happen.
Of course, there are nude bodies on stage (hello..I am at Belvoir after all, or Cockoir, as I call it). But this adds to the stage picture of the uptight and curtailed formality of Act One and Act Two’s quiet, awkward inappropriateness. Contrast drives the characters and events of this play and there are so many dimensions to it, I keep finding them as I deconstruct the effect the play had on me.
One of the strongest elements to ‘Miss Julie’ is the acting. I could not have asked more from this cast. They were superb. But most of all, I was impressed with Taylor Ferguson, whose Miss Julie was completely believable in age, role and predicament. This becomes alarming, given what happens, because it reminds you how significant the breach of trust and responsibility is towards a sixteen year old and we are disquieted by its very happening. Ferguson was incredibly convincing and if not for Cowell and Best’s ability to serve as contrast in role, it would not have been so good.
I think this is Stone’s best piece of writing yet and he should hand his work over to other directors like Caceres from now on so that the subtlety can be allowed to brew and his work is not overburdened with the double-Stone treatment. Caceres lets the piece sit when it needs to and I think it has made it stronger.
Go and catch ‘Miss Julie’ and decide for yourself. I think it’s worth it.