A Darlinghurst Theatre Company Production of MISS JULIE by August Strindberg in a new version by Cristabel Sved and Kate Box at the Darlinghurst Theatre.
I knew of the preparation of this production over a year ago. I am a fan of both Cristabel Sved and Kate Box. At an Art Installation exhibition, outdoors, in winter, last year Ms Sved told me of her plans. I am nearly always mesmerized by the performance work of Ms Box and believe her to be particularly gifted, and Miss Julie in the Strindberg play would be a great showcase for those gifts. I was warmed on that winter night with excitement. I have kept my eyes on the calendar all year for this production.
I am always, or nearly certain, ninety percent certain, when I am about to see a production from recent NIDA graduates of the Design and Director's course that the European avant-garde of the late 1970's/80's will be gracing, visually, our stage. There seems to be only one visual school in their repertoire - designers and directors. Can you guess, then, how my expectant and excited self felt, as we, the audience, were ushered through an alternate entrance to the Darlinghurst Theatre (wow, how disorienting!) and walked across the back of the stage to view antiquated kitchen sink and white goods in a back stage corner against the wall and a mobile glass/perspex box, center-stage, filled with a dark dirt and a sickly (plastic) plant, with Ms Box, like an exhibit at the zoo or in a museum case, brooding, stewing in its environs.? We checked if there were a paper crown on this young aristocrat's head - relievedly, there was not, not even a paper tiara - it, being in the context of the play, a Mid-summer Eve party going on back stage. What with the throbbing base noise in the soundtrack later on, I had flash backs to the glass vitrines of The Dome venue at the Fox studio conclave, the old Meat Pavilion at an Inquisition Dance Party, in which sexual aberrations were often exhibited for our delectation - this was to prove a prophetic remembrance, later in the show! On sitting down we saw further laundry equipment, machine etc. against the other wall. We hoped that there would be no dirty underwear or blood on Jean, when he appeared. So far all the post-dramatic boxes of the Shit on Your Play blog - ticked off, religiously.
Now why do MISS JULIE at all? Ms Sved in her program notes says:
Our journey with MISS JULIE began when we were looking for a play to work on together, the criteria - a great role for a woman. Serendipitously, we both came to each other with MISS JULIE. ..."Indeed I would embrace, I did embrace, that idea for them both. That Kate Box could be great in this role. Unfortunately, that is not so, not at the performance I saw.
What happened? Let's try to analyze this: Ms Box has still the gift of great presence, a glowing intelligence and a pulsing sexuality in this performance but it was not yet technically controlled. Nerves or just too much other stress, as it was a joint production, conception and adaptation as well as the responsibility of creating a performance, may have prevented the relaxation to do it? For instance, the famous, (infamous speech for some), it is incredibly difficult and crucial, that Miss Julie has after the killing of the bird "... Do you think I can't stand the sight of blood? …" etc. was shouted and hysteric in a way that prevented any audience empathy either as a character or actor. This is late in the play but was confirmation that something was amiss, absent.
Was it the conception of Jean - as an older man, instead of the usual ambitious attractive "Lady Chatterly's Lover" type we are used to imagining, and, the idea that it is Jean's last throw of the dice to get out of his situation as servant, that was unbalancing my reading of the play in the theatre? No, it is an interesting idea and choice - I have always thought that the casting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Kostia in the famous New York, in the Park performance of THE SEAGULL, with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, a few years back, was an exciting idea and one that I would like to try. Casting against the romantic physical type. Playing him as character rather than ingénue. Now, James Lugton is a good actor, but he was still only an 'actor' in this role, when I saw it. The effort to create this Jean was still evident from Mr Lugton. We can see the wheels of the craftsman turning and it never takes flight into the world of existing, of being invented - here, Mr Lugton is seen to be building his performance, and not always comfortably. The performance lacks the charismatic presence to match his adversary on stage and the duet, then, between the two, seems unequal, from different 'planets' of performance approach and present playing. Ms Box, then, seems to have to invent a lot of the other role as well as her own, and sometimes appears to be 'revving' in sand - not enough obstacle coming from the other performance to give her the necessary traction to play believably, full out, as she seemed, now again, to intimate as a possibility.
Or, is it the design offers? This design by Michael Hankin, seems to be determinedly contemporary and with choices that are far from useful for this nineteenth century 'sensation'. Strindberg, within the conventions of his period, gave fairly direct revolutionary indications of what he wanted, to smash the conventions of his time, and Mr Hankin's decisions hardly seem congruent to create a similar sensation in the theatre of today. The 'look' of this production is a very well tried one, - a tired one, especially, as I indicated, in Sydney, of late. The set mechanisms in this play design, for instance, with one of its pre-occupations being about class and status, have Ms Julie, herself, pushing this great big wheeled perspex box around the stage, spinning it and 'parking' it upstage/off stage. Why? Especially when the other two characters, Jean and Kristen, are servants, and that that task might be, should be, part of their world responsibilities? Or is there significance in that? What is the storytelling purpose of having all the furniture 'clutching' the walls, leaving, when the box is pushed off stage, this great big black hole, lit in cool modern fluroscents (Lighting Design, Verity Hampson), and with lighting cues designed to draw attention to their execution rather than create atmosphere for the story? – a Brechtian destabilizing effect – I guess. I spent some time during the performance cogitating on all this. The costume designs are an odd mix of look, and not always true to the Strindberg intentions especially with regard to the Jean story - his first entrance, not in valet uniform, is at odds with Strindberg's meaning, I think.
This design, of course, is also part of Ms Sved's vision and dual responsibility should be given for the decisions. It appears to be about a visual style, rather than a useful tool in telling the story of Strindberg's MISS JULIE - it is not, apprehensibly, clear. It added up to an abstracted set of clues that seemed obfuscatory, rather than illuminating. I enjoyed the work of Sam Chester (movement Director), Kristen's ballet (Sophie Gregg), for instance, and wished more incorporation of that stylisation - although, I believe the extended sex 'dance' in the upstage box was unnecessary, and, if, I am wrong about that, far too extended. I thought there were a lot of design ideas going on here, from both artists, but not enough through thought as to the clarity of what was offered for the audience to take on board.
Is it the textual adaptation? There is an interesting mix of old fashioned language and contemporary expression and change of emphasis that exists in the text that Ms Sved and Box have decided on (the function or impact of the character of Kristen for example). It does not quite gel. My favorite adaptation of this play is the Patrick Marber, Donmar Warehouse version, 2003, AFTER MISS JULIE, set in the kitchen of a large country house outside London, on the night of the famous 'landslide' victory of the British Labour Party post World War II, 26 July 1945. The Marber version has the feel of a class revolution and a need for sexual taboo celebrations, and for me, makes so much contemporary sense of the play. The contemporisations by this company fail to reveal why this play was originally so revolutionary and so important or why it is worth doing today, particularly in Australia. The problem of class, servant and master relations, of the emancipation of women, the politics about that, and of the use of sexual tensions to reveal that, are not issues that really concern us now. The shock of the new, content and theories of performance style , written in 1888 are more than a little passe, today. A friend seeing this production of the play, the first time he had ever encountered the play, could not understand why it was so famous a play and what was the justification, if not to see a great actress at work, to do it. The play and it's dramaturgical ventures were not important in this production.
He and I felt that the problems of class, servant and master relationships, the changing of political and philosophical movements, and the use of sex to reveal that, was so much more powerful in the recent period film from Denmark, A ROYAL AFFAIR (2012) directed by Nikolaj Arcel, with Alicia Vilkander as a kind of Miss Julie figure, The Queen of Denmark, Caroline Mathilde, and Mads Mikkelsen as the Jean figure, the political underclass represented by Stusensee. The period setting of the film underlined the historical power and significance of the story, for today – as part of our heritage as a progressive, secular democracy. It's contextual period struggle gave the film/story a relevancy and a reason to be told now. The relative ordinary textual adaptation and the modish design choices, here, in this production, do not seem to do the same thing. Thus, we concluded, it is neither a vehicle for the talent on stage, at this performance, or a play of urgent contemporary relevance.
Call us old fashioned, but, maybe a period setting with the contemporary living urgencies of the creators, director, actors of 2012 harnessed within that world would give MISS JULIE, this production, clearer purpose and clarity and, ultimately, impact. At the time I saw it, it was not settled, aesthetically arresting or dramatically cogent or relevant.
This is a very interesting 'failure'. Knowing the passions of the artists at the centre of all this effort it is worth puzzling over. I will try to catch it, again , later in the season. Opening nights can be unsettling. It certainly makes the up-coming Simon Stone adaptation starring Brendan Cowell something to wonder about. I am supposing that in this production, that Mr Cowell is going to take on Jean and not a cross dressed version of Miss Julie? Although, what with Mr Stone and other of his classic adaptations (THYESTES -cross gender role play) it could be so. The Belvoir advertising of this production of MISS JULIE starring Brendan Cowell is indeed intriguing. This one was MISS JULIE starring Kate Box. Seems the right way round to me. Then, as I have said above, I am old fashioned, about some things.
- Strindberg. Plays One, Translated by Michael Myer - Methuen Drama, 1964.
- After Miss Julie by Patrick Marber After Strindberg, Methuen Drama, 2003.
- August Strindberg by Eszter Szalczer, Routledge Modern And Contemporary Dramatists, 2011.
- Strindberg's Miss Julie. A Play And It's Transpositions by Egil Tornqvist and Barry Jacobs, Norvik Press. 1988.