Productions of Strindberg's Miss Julie crop up with the frequency of tabloid moral crusades; Laura Harvey's version (in Meredith Oakes's translation) in the Derby Playhouse studio is the fourth I have reviewed in less than three years with the Financial Times, and I have by no means cornered the market in Miss Julies.
For once, though, this is a production which steers clear of over-emphasising either social class or sexual tension at the expense of the other, or both to the detriment of the drama as a whole. Here, both Miss Julie and her father's footman Jean seem to be saying what they think and feel as the notions occur to them, rather than engaging in a mutual cat-and-mouse game; only in the final third of the play are voices raised more than momentarily.
Max Gold's Jean is clearly ambitious, but is more of an opportunist than a predator, and thankfully almost devoid of the preening to which all too many actors in the role resort; this Jean's dreams of social ascent are far from cold-blooded. As Miss Julie, Mairead Carty hits absolutely the right note when called upon by the script to grow fraught, but lets off rather too many premature warning shots in the form of little gasps or nervous half-laughs; were she to find more often the quiet power of her protest to Jean, "I'd gladly shoot you like an animal," her performance would be near faultless.
Janice McKenzie's Kristin undergoes the most telling changes: rather than the usual, dully affable appendage (too often, Jean's betrothed scullery-maid seems to be present simply to break up otherwise endless duologues), McKenzie plays her as a survivor, infused with a grim, sardonic awareness of goings-on around her and clad in an admonitory strain of Christianity – in fact, given the accent which the actress uses, Kristin comes across as an upright, responsible Ulster Presbyterian. Amid such welcome undemonstrativeness, the irruption of a couple of lasciviously capering modern-dance peasants, gyrating through the kitchen whilst Jean and Miss Julie are otherwise engaged offstage, is the only major indulgence of the evening.
McKenzie returns after an interval to perform a modern response piece to the play, Louise Page's 20-minute monologue The Statue Of Liberty. The narrator is Christine, who has teamed up with her colleague John to sell the inside dope upon moral crusader Julia to a tabloid paper. Although not quite self-sustaining, Page's piece is a clever commentary upon Strindberg's play, filtering the original relationships and attitudes at high speed through a contemporary media-political nexus, in which power and scandal are located not in country houses but along the Hampstead-Docklands axis. This Christine is direct and assured, throwing further light upon McKenzie's characterisation in the main play – when she says, "I didn't do it for the money," she sounds quite plausible; toying with her passport as she speaks, she is the only character in either play with any prospect of escape.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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