On the heels of Simon Stone’s previous work, I was admittedly dreading his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, with its reputation as a “hallmark of the misogynist theatrical canon,” as director Leticia Cáceres puts it. In Cáceres’ hands however, this production of Miss Julie transcends its superficial labels and becomes a harrowing piece of theatre, one that problematises its subject matter and tries to unpick it, works to present a solution to it.
One of theatre’s ‘great’ feuding couples, Miss Julie is the story of Julie, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prominent politician, and Jean, the man hired by her father to look after her. In the mode of writers like Chekhov or Shakespeare, Miss Julie is all at once about class and transcending the limitations of your class, while also not being about class at all but rather about lust and desire. It’s a toxic play, intense and unrelenting, but in Stone’s version – freely adapted from Strindberg’s 1888 play – there is something else, too. There’s almost a humanness that ripples through its two-hours running time, and in light of his previous work in
over the last several years, it is something of a welcome relief, perhaps a
maturation of his style. Of course, it could also be the hand of Leticia
Cáceres, the production’s director, which has helped to balance out Stone’s
trademark style into something more probing and pertinent than what it could’ve
been if he’d been directing it himself. Sydney
As Jean, Brendan Cowell is almost shy, at least initially, almost drawn inwards upon himself. He is all too aware of what Miss Julie represents, what she can represent, and we see him putting up the defensive barrier the instant she appears on stage. But by the end of the first half, as she has pushed him closer to the edge of the precipice than perhaps any of us would ever care to go, he lets his guard down for one tiny little moment and they jump, head first, over the edge, together, hurtling faster than ever before towards the unthinkable. As Julie, Taylor Ferguson plays the double-edged sword of the role frightening well, almost without inhibition, easily covering up the few slight instances where she misjudged her footing. By the play’s end, you’re not so sure of her naivety – is she really the reasonably sheltered daughter of a politician, or is she more in control of the situation than we’d care to consider? Is Julie herself even aware of the full implications of what she is doing? As Chritine, Jean’s fiancée, Blazey Best plays the steely resolve of her character, the determination and strength not so much overlooking as moving on from Jean’s infidelity and gross miscalculation. She seems a rather similar character to Anita Hegh’s Gina in Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck seen at Belvoir in 2011; both women are built of sterner stuff, and it’s only when they’re put to the test that we realise it.
Robert Cousins’ set, Tess Schofield’s costumes, and Damien Cooper’s lighting are all unobtrusive, unnoticeable as having been consciously designed. And in a way, their effectiveness is in highlighting the potency of the play, of its words and its characters, its inherent volatility. THE SWEATS’ music, as it blasts from the speakers at the beginning and end of the play, is discordant, shocking, but sets the tone for the production as something that will jolt you awake, that will shake your view of the characters and their actions, that will make you question your own beliefs and ideals, your own response to its contents. And this is a good thing; we are not complacent anymore, at least not for the duration of this production – we are given an opportunity to examine the class system whose existence we can vehemently deny but you just need to walk down the street to see it; gone are the “counts and lords … but we still have a sense of economic royalty,” as Cáceres puts it. We question the role money and its power has in creating status and privilege; perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born rich, some achieve richness, while others have richness thrust upon them. There’s the question of a woman’s sexuality, the issue of shame that still surrounds lust and desire, regardless of how enlightened we’d like to think we are. “The 24/7 porn on the internet with its graphic violence doesn’t mean that a woman can get away with more. The shame remains the same. The silence remains the same,” Cáceres says in The Weekend Australian. All of these issues are canvassed in Stone and Cáceres’ adaptation of Miss Julie, and while no solutions are explicitly proposed, their deconstruction is compelling and harrowing, almost unstomachable at times.
This production’s ending, originally following the late-nineteenth-century convention of naturalist drama (see The Wild Duck, or Hedda Gabler as examples), is shocking, yes, but underneath it all is a sixteen-year-old girl’s desperate plea for help, for someone to help her out of the nightmare whose reality she’s only just awoken to.
In an article in The Weekend Australian, critic Peter Craven writes that with Strindberg, “you feel like you’re getting the whisky without the water.” It’s an effective analogy, too – especially as sixteen-year-old Miss Julie “takes to sexual and every other kind of power like a knife she can’t put down, [and] wrestles to the point of perdition with the yob she kindles lust in.” There’s no denying the power and weight behind Cáceres and Stone’s new version of Strindberg’s play; it’s cruel, hungry, desperate, red-blooded theatre, sexually charged and certainly confronting, but for once, I didn’t mind it.
Theatre playlist: 27. Kiss With A Fist,
+ the Machine Florence