I’ve been enjoying (mostly) my weekly visits to the National Theatre At Home platform and working my way through a number of productions which I had originally missed. Unlike last year’s regular weekly broadcasts, I get to choose what to see and review every time and can usually be assured that whatever I pick it will be of good quality. Well, I guess that run of good luck had to end sometime – and it has. Last night I opted for Polly Stenham’s updating and revamping of what is probably Strindberg’s most famous piece; shorn of half its title it is simply called Julie. I suppose to be fair it wasn’t so much a case of poor quality as that I just didn’t like it.
The basic narrative arc and the trio of central characters remains. Julie a rich kid (even if she is 33) makes a play for her well connected father’s driver, Jean and succeeds in enticing him away from the arms of Kristina the family housekeeper. The pair make plans to run away which come to nothing; inevitable tragedy follows. A stark outline for a stark and bleak play which in its original form was banned in its native Sweden for strong language and sexual situations/imagery which were seen as a slap in the face for respectable society. I wasn’t so sure that this version of the play shouldn’t have been banned but for artistic crimes rather than social or moral ones.
Let’s start with the set – Tom Scutt’s football field of a kitchen. Even for a Hampstead mansion it is ludicrously large and totally dwarfs the three actors who often find themselves stranded at opposite ends of the stage communicating over a huge void (OK – I get the artistic point of that). Considering this is an intimate naturalistic drama and one of Julie’s issues is that she is supposed to feel trapped in and by her surroundings the space is out of all proportion. It looks as though having been given the expanse of the Dorfman auditorium it has been deemed necessary to fill it somehow – anyhow. The same might be said for director Carrie Cracknell’s decision to incorporate a score of partygoers who are, again, used to fill up the expansive playing area in the usually unseen rave going on upstairs. Although this instantly gives us a picture of Julie’s milieu they otherwise add very little value and I would have been just as happy for them to be left to my imagination. And then there’s the gratuitous canary in the blender moment – yes, you did read that right. In a desperate attempt to ape the shock value of the original (the sexual and class transgressions aren’t going to do it these days) there’s a ridiculously botched scene which is both stomach churning and risible at the same time. Above all, updating the play really removes the necessary driving force behind the piece as ignoring rigid class divisions really doesn’t matter as much as it once did. Replacing this with a suggestion that two of the characters sit outside “the system” (both Jean and Kristina are migrant workers) attempts to redress the balance but remains unsatisfactory. And who, these days, is going to be that bothered that a coke snorting party girl has had a relationship with a chauffeur to the point where it offends societal norms and they feel they have to run away to avoid censure – even our Prime Minister doesn’t do that!
In case you think it’s all bad news, the acting is very good. Vanessa Kirby is thoroughly unlikeable as the central figure of the piece and navigates her descent into despair and beyond with skill and understanding. I couldn’t work out whether Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean was genuinely attracted to her or was simply on the make – perhaps it is a combination. However, he is a definite presence who conveys that the character has hidden depths even if it’s not quite clear what those depths are. I didn’t really detect much sexual chemistry between the two leads but put that down to watching it over a screen rather than live. Undoubtedly the strongest player is Thalissa Teixeira who conveys an inner life and a past and in a late occurring monologue demonstrates the character’s dignity even as she claims it has been taken away from her.
Mercifully the play is relatively brief and could have been briefer still if some of the extraneous padding had been stripped away. I had a sinking feeling within the first quarter of an hour that Julie I weren’t going to get on; unfortunately, I was right. I’ve been asked if I always sit through everything I start and the honest answer is yes, I do. Even with some of the less engaging plays I’ve virtually attended I’ve always taken the view that something may happen before it ends which will change my mind or radically alter my view. Perhaps in this instance I should have allowed myself to abandon ship.
Production photos by Richard Hubert Smith
Julie is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)