By Danielle Farrow
August Strindberg’s Miss Julie turns class and gender clashes into an intimate and often highly disturbing encounter between the titular aristocratic daughter of the house and one of its footman (Jean), with his ‘intended’ the cook adding some religion to the toxic brew. Overshadowing their seductions, lies, dramatics and power plays, is Miss Julie’s father, the ever unseen lord of the manor.
Strindberg pays great attention to the psychology of his characters – as known to him at the time (the play was first produced in 1888) and with his own agenda (misogynistic). Miss Julie, flirtatious, demanding, petty, insensitive, seductive and completely lost, longs to fall from her pedestal. Jean – crude, romantic, disloyal, practical and sadistic – is set on rising in the world. Kristin the cook is determined to keep her man, fully supports the class structure and wields her faith as a sharp weapon.
In Vagabond Productions’ Miss Julie, ages of the main protagonists are surprisingly senior to the ages given by Strindberg, the eldest – Kristin – becoming significantly the youngest. Leaving aside the changes this creates in dynamics between the characters, the sexual power games of Julie and Jean worked well, once the actress playing Miss Julie grew in performance confidence. Both actors committed themselves to the direction, where staging gives the kitchen setting a central table that takes up most of the space and there are occasional sounds off, sometimes of abrasive sound quality. The restrictions of their world is captured in the tight space, but the shocking killing of a beloved pet happens off stage, cutting some powerful visuals.
Jean is particularly strong when speaking of his supposed early love for Miss Julie and his cynical plans for their future together and Julie is at her best when taunting him. Neither of them, however, despite attempting bravura performances, were believable as Miss Julie unravels and Jean attempts to settle what she is to do. Julie in particular could not connect with her cries of anguish, and Jean’s sing-song drone, present for a great part of the play, was met by an inability to connect with his explanation of the conditioning a servant receives, which weakened the ending considerably.
In this world where animals mean more to the aristocracy than servants and servants cannot accept the nobility as being human, where Miss Julie finally realises that she has only her father’s thoughts, her mother’s feelings and her ex-fiancé’s notions on equality, the strength of the play is in its ideas and writing. The achievement of Vagabond’s production is that it allows both to shine by allowing the text to speak for itself. Though the performers did not manage to be fully believable throughout, they were able to grab and hold attention and kept the play moving forward with strong momentum, creating a Miss Julie worth watching.