August Strindberg is rightly regarded as one of the fathers of modern drama, and Miss Julie is indisputably a masterpiece, but it can be the very devil to play fluently. The slew of disparate character motivations, the see-sawing balance of power between aristocratic Julie and Jean the servant, dialogue that switches from cool manipulation to keen despair... too many actors find it impossible to perform without teetering over the brink into synthetic neurosis.
Amanda Donohoe manages beautifully. She is comprehensively aware of her strongest suits as an actor, and utilises them acutely: she is not quite fatale, but through her coquetry shines a constant glint of Toledo steel. The combination of Donohoe and Strindberg's doomed young noblewoman is inspired.
Although she overplays the youthful laughter once or twice, its mature equivalent is deployed to great effect. Rather than winding herself up too soon to a high emotional pitch, she pulls back time and again with a solitary defensive giggle; even as the full extent of Julie's "fall" is brought home to her, Donohoe allows her an instant of grim incredulity that she should thus have entangled herself.
Director Braham Murray more or less lets her get on with it, orchestrating the steady tightening of the noose and marshalling Patrick O'Kane's performance as Jean through repeated phases of temptation, conflict and icy exploitation. O'Kane rises with commitment to the challenge of portraying the nemesis to such a Julie; he lays his traps with deliberation, changing smoothly between moods as if Jean himself were a skilled actor. Only in the final minutes, when Jean too must verge on frenzy, does O'Kane lose the theatrical thread.
The Midsummer's Eve setting is emphasised by the daft but curiously unobtrusive touch of surrounding the onstage kitchen with a broad belt of carnations. (What is the collective noun for carnations on stage? A Bausch, perhaps.) Murray and composer Chris Monks make beautiful use of the acoustics of the Royal Exchange – a theatre built inside a larger hall – as the sounds of the servants' dance echo in through the theatre's glass walls, culminating with the party pouring into the empty kitchen and performing a positively torrid dance on the table.
The only grating note is the gratuitous decision that, since O'Kane uses his native mild Ulster burr as Jean, Christine the scullery maid should also be Irish. The overtones of the rural "big house" are few and specious, and Marie Francis simply cannot do Irish. (Which part of Ireland is Christine from? Most of it, to judge by her voice.) Francis's performance glimmers with fire, but is fatally dampened by having to play the accent before the lines.
The central dynamic, however, remains strong. This is a tense and unremitting account of a Miss Julie brought down, not only by her own flaws, but by the machinations of a Jean bent on revenge for his own motives, which are more insubstantial but no less forceful. Those who go along hoping to sneer at Amanda Donohoe as a limited screen actress unequal to a great stage role will, thank goodness, be sorely disappointed.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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