By PENNY MULVEY
The clapping started tenuously, slowly. It was as though the audience released a collective breath in acknowledgement that the emotional, physical and verbal maelstrom they had witnessed had concluded.
August Strindberg’s Miss Julie demands total commitment of its cast, as they repeatedly collide over values, class, sexual politics and societal expectations. The Swedish playwright, who pushed against all conventions of his time, wrote this play in 1888, in the midst of an unhappy divorce and at the beginning of the naturalist movement.
The three characters engage in verbal dance – simmering, explosive, threatening – which director Kip Williams likens to a ‘cage fight’, an image enhanced by the extraordinary set, a glass box surrounded by video cameras and two large projection screens.
Miss Julie, played by Robin McLeavy, is used to life served on a platter. She is the young mistress of the manor, her father the count, with servants at her beck and call her entire life. The play is set in the servants’ domain, the kitchen, where the audience first encounters Miss Julie’s attendant Kristin (Zahra Newman) and Jean (Mark Leonard Winter), the count’s valet.
A particularly misogynistic play, Williams has adapted the text to bring more understanding of Julie’s motivations as she seeks to seduce the young valet.
“It doesn’t ring true to a contemporary ear; his condemnation of women,” Mark Leonard Winter said of Strindberg’s original work in an interview with themusic.com.au. “We’ve needed to find a way to give a true voice to Miss Julie and the other characters so their arguments can’t be dismissed as flippantly as they are in the original.”
This Melbourne Theatre Company production is a visual feast. The set includes a working stove and a kitchen sink with running water. A meal is prepared, cooked and eaten. This is part of Strindberg’s commitment to naturalism, where a play is supposed to be realistic, meaningful and not complicated by elaborate sub plots. As a result it is a one act play, limited to a particular period – Midsummer’s eve, with most of the action played out in the kitchen.
However, Strindberg might not have approved of the elaborate staging which, while dazzling, is anything but simple. As we watch the actors on stage, they are projected, in close up, on a screen above, and their images are reflected in the glass walls of the kitchen set. The effect is riveting.
Kristin is the steady rock, who knows her place as a servant in the household, has a strong articulate Christian faith and uncompromising ethics. Jean reflects the competing desires and clashing values that are inherent within human kind. One moment he is courteous, principled and subservient. The next he is contemptuous, threatening and powerful. Whilst he might be a valet now, he has plans, and Midsummer’s eve is unexpectedly providing opportunities for him to pursue.
Miss Julie is perhaps the most complex. She is a character that is captured in some of the great literary works. A woman trapped in a world not of her making. A woman who does not want to be bound by societal expectations, who was raised to be different but is held, like a caged animal, by familial ties and traditions. She is both a temptress and a pawn.
It is a heady mix, beautifully presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company, but it is not for the faint hearted.
16 April to 21 May, Southbank Theatre, The Sumner