Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 16 April, 1996

The programme notes to the Actors Touring Company's latest production include a handy definition of theatrical naturalism. This is doubly helpful: it places Strindberg's play in a dramatic-historical context and also informs us how little respect director Nick Philippou pays to the presentational idea behind the piece. Philippou's strength as a director is his ability to turn the emotional pitch up to around 26 on a scale of ten. However, taking the same approach to Miss Julie as he did to The Maids and No Exit (Huis Clos) last year is a decision more perverse than inspired.

We know what we are in for from the start. The lights fall amid a blare of noise which resolves itself into sinister heavy breathing; agonised half-lit faces are visible through the translucent frontages of closets on either side of Angela Davies' stainless-steel set, which is more reminiscent of an abattoir than the kitchen of a noble country house; the light which bleeds through the windows suggests the passage of Midsummer's Eve in primary colours, shifting during the course of the play from scarlet to electric blue to brass.

Tension in the kitchen is geared high from the outset, as Jean treats kitchen-maid Kristin with the same peremptoriness that Miss Julie at first displays toward him. Gregory Motton's translation is slightly more acidic than most, but it is the direction which creates such a comprehensive lack of sympathy. Characters function as tools and audiences for one another rather than interacting in any civil way; even in the final movement, the sense of Miss Julie and Jean as horrified, desperate conspirators repeatedly dissipates as Jean nakedly manipulates the woman who is now his mistress in every sense. The coupling of the two, visible again through the closet wall, is at best a kind of hate-sex, at worst rape.

As Julie, Kate Fenwick begins with brittle, transparently condescending grins and risible naïveté, and copes well with the dangers of shrill monotony in her later panicked hysteria. Kristin Hewson's kitchen-maid is sullen and resentful, using her uprightness and acquiescence as a club to belabour the others. But Peter Lindford plays unremittingly on the odious aspects of Jean: he is all affectation and twanging comedy accent, with the result that the women's relations with him are beyond comprehension.

The central elements of class and of sex as power are undeniably present, but unmediated by the necessary veneer of more human dealings. Philippou lays bare the psychological skeleton of the play, but the price he pays is that it then seems only able to jerk in mechanistic spasms.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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