In the last 5 years some of the National Theatre most memorable productions have centred on the experience of woman who feel powerless or constrained. Carrie Cracknell’s fearsome 2014 version of Medea with Helen McCrory felt like the beginning of a shift towards a greater understanding of literature’s most complex heroines, shackled to a smothering social order they have nothing to do with creating. In 2016, Cracknell and McCrory returned with a sublime adaption of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea which retained its post-war setting but in Tom Scutt’s fresh design brought a raw emotional intensity to the story. The same can be said of Ruth Wilson’s Hedda Gabler which opened later that year in which Ivo van Hove’s modern setting brought a clarity to Ibsen that allowed Wilson to shine.
These examples made it look easy but reimagining a classic isn’t necessarily straightforward. While it may seem that all a Company should do is decide whether to move the action to the modern day and if the original text needs to be updated, then put it in a funky, preferably spacious set and let the plaudits flow in, it is a lot more complicated than that. They also need to really understand, and most importantly to convey, the psychology of the characters. If you’re removing cluttered sets and archaic language, then the stage has to be filled with something else, the inner lives of the characters writ large, painful and inescapable, taking the audience on the dark path the protagonist embarks on.
In the National’s new production of Miss Julie based on Strindberg’s 1889 tragedy about class and aimless despair, writer Polly Stenham has made her choices; as well as dropping Miss from the title, the action is relocated from nineteenth-century Sweden to a house party in 2018 Hampstead. Stenham too has placed Stindberg aside and written the text herself using the key plot points to shape a more up-to-date interpretation, sidestepping the coyness of Strindberg’s original for open discussion of sex, money and drug-taking.
As maid Kristina and chauffeur Jean tidy the kitchen, a birthday party rages in the room upstairs. It’s the early hours of the morning, people are dancing wildly, filling the house with beat, and sweat and noise, but birthday girl Julie feels lost, abandoned, alone. Recently dumped by her fiancé and with no sign of her father, Julie throws herself wildly into the party, finding it increasingly difficult to paper over the cracks, or pretend she’s having a good time. Wandering into the kitchen she falls into conversation with Jean, and as a heat grows between them they become reckless. Knowing they cannot be together, the pair toy with each other until a crisis is reached. In the aftermath, both must decide what their future holds.
Julie is at heart an examination of how easy betrayal can be. In various guises, characters are disloyal to one another breaking conventions for one small moment of satisfaction that ultimately seems insignificant against the tribulations it unleashes. Julie is a destructive and a self-destructive presence, which acts like a contagion during the play, dragging others into her sphere of misery. With surprisingly little goading, Jean dismissively betrays the warm and easy relationship he has with fiancée Kristina. At the same time Julie, claiming to adore Kristina betrays their years of friendship by pursuing something she doesn’t particularly need just for the pleasure of being wanted for a moment. The consequences of this double attack on Kristina suggest only misery and regret will follow.
But both the central characters also end up betraying themselves with reckless action outside of their usual character that backs them into a corner. Despite Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) claiming he once held an unrequited love for Julie, impossible to act upon given his role as a servant, you sense that he’s not the person he becomes on this one night. While remote and arguably underwritten in Stenham’s adaptation, he’s not someone we come to know particularly well, but there is a sense of moral decency that runs through him, of not wanting to cross the line, of responsibility and of sober restraint. And it is Julie who pushes him to betray his own character, to act beyond his usual limits for which he feels ashamed.
As the star of the show Vanessa Kirby’s Julie is more complex, described early-on by Kristina as a character in “technicolour”, she is full of contradictions, loves partying, claims to be gregarious but it’s all a front to hide her overwhelming lack of purpose. Clearly still grieving from the suicide of her mother an unspecified number of years before and reeling from the end of her relationship, Kirby’s Julie seems brittle but has moments of bravado, even shocking selfishness and cruelty that make her difficult to like – including a League of Gentlemen-inspired moment with a budgie. In confrontations with Jean he accuses her of being rich, entitled, spoiled and with the luxury of time, allowing her to be self-indulgent in her misery because she has nothing else to do – it’s hard to disagree.
But Kirby has played enough of these types of women on stage and screen to bring out the underlying complexity in Julie’s situation. She may be all of the things Jean says, but she knows it and that is the key to her disillusion with the world and her inability to claw her way out of the box she has created for herself. Being the good-time-girl is all she knows how to do, not because she wants to, but because its like putting on armour for her, a way to face each day without succumbing to the desperation that her encounter with Jean finally unplugs. These are the wonderful female performances that Director Carrie Cracknell so often elicits, and Kirby illuminates the stage, even left alone and unspeaking at the end, she fills the room with a strange intensity, she’s pushed Julie almost to the point where the audience can barely sympathise with her, yet she remains compelling.
Kirby’s performance is the high point in show that elsewhere has some problems to solve before Thursday’s press night. At only 85-minutes and after a raucous start, there are passages where the energy noticeably dips. So much of the action takes place in duologue between Julie and Jean, and despite a lovely moment when they first assess each other from opposite ends of the sizeable Lyttelton stage with such a charge that they could be face-to-face, with so little of Jean’s character elucidated and with a more watered-down class divide, their interactions too frequently feel as though there’s little at stake when the opposite should be true.
Aspects of Stenham’s modern setting are well realised by Cracknell and her team, the raging house party that dominates the raised area at the back of the stage makes for an energetic beginning, a context for the action to come and lasting a surprisingly long time before anyone speaks. Tom Scutt’s clinical kitchen set and intimidating concrete table is at once the image of modish luxury, a desire for chic and expensive homes devoid of personality, but as a sliding wall blocks out the dwindling party the tone changes, with Scutt’s work, lit by Guy Hoare, increasingly resembling a windowless prison, reiterating Julie’s concern with the bubble and trap of privilege.
Yet there is a nagging thought all the way through that the whole production feels like a pretence, ironically mirroring that same idea the characters have of themselves. With so many successful modern adaptations of classic work, why update Strindberg’s text at all? Surely there is plenty of scope for producing a modern version of the original work that doesn’t require a full rewrite. The production wants to feel edgy but peppering the text with references to sex and drugs is no replacement for the uneven tension between Jean and Julie. The nature of the class system has so changed that a liaison between the boss’s daughter and the chauffeur isn’t the scandal it once would have been, while any intended inter-racial subtext is entirely diluted and all-but irrelevant. Other than Jean already being in a relationship, it’s hard to see why the consequences of their liaison should be so mutually destructive.
To make this work, the audience needs to know much more about the other characters and in particular why Jean would suddenly risk everything. Julie says he doesn’t give much away, but for the viewer it makes it difficult to understand and appreciate his motivation, or to invest in the personal fall-out. Arguably, with the weakening of the master-servant relationship in modern Britain there were other ways to recast Jean’s position that would have better explained the hold Julie’s father would have over him, deference doesn’t quite ring true, whereas a monetary / business connection could be more viable, making him a rising star in her father’s firm with plenty to lose. Similarly, Thalissa Teixeira rings every ounce of nuance from the role of Kristina, a kind friend and loyal girlfriend. Teixeira delivers a superb final shame-inducing speech which bursts Jean and Julie’s bubble, but if you’re modernising the play why not give her more to do than wander on silently to clean in the downtime between interactions. The history of Kristina’s protective, almost motherly, support for Julie could be better explored in the text which needs to offer a more complete understanding of the scale of the betrayals that occur, and a greater insight into Julie’s family life to ratchet up the tension in the aftermath of the party.
Re-imagining a classic is then not as easy as it sounds, and while there is lots to like in Cracknell’s production that pushes Kirby’s multifaceted performance to the front, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed in part. There is a balance to be found in rewriting a well-known play – as those like Patrick Marber can attest with successful adaptations of Three Days in the Country and Don Juan in Soho – one that honours the original while making changes that are more suited to the modern setting. While Stenham retains plenty of Strindberg’s purpose, Julie doesn’t go quite far enough in remoulding the political and psychological shape of its characters for the twenty-first century. Imaginative it certainly is and well performed, but like a later sequel to a classic novel it bears the marks of slightly unsatisfactory imitation. May as well have just adapted Strindberg.
Julie is at the National Theatre until 08 September and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1