On the whole, a play by Strindberg (1849-1912) is never going to be a day at the races, though if you count the two tragic deaths at this year’s Grand National, then maybe it is.
A prolific writer who often drew on his own life experiences for his work, and Miss Julie is no exception, Strindberg was both in favour of women’s advancement and an accused Misogynist! He had numerous platonic and sexual relationships throughout his life, most of which ended in turmoil.
Of course the class and gender complexities involved in relationships were far more difficult in the late 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t they? Well quite possibly not. Yes, both men and women now have the vote and the ‘upstairs downstairs’ scenario is far from the norm for the bulk of society, but issues about class-divide continue to fill news pages and attitudes towards women’s sexual behavior continues to plague them.
The themes of gender, class, love and lust explored in Miss Julie, written in 1888, are just as applicable today in 2012. It’s safe to say as I went to watch Miss Julie on Monday, directed by Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange Theatre, I did not expect to be uplifted, but I certainly hoped to be enlightened. Informed beforehand of no interval (cue “Jesus what if I need to wee” panic), once the play started I fully understood why.
The set of Miss Julie – the kitchen of a Swedish Count’s house, all rustic wood awash with pale blue and soft cream hues – was beautifully and suitably basic and bleak. The play, set on Midsummer’s Night in 1874, revolves around the actions of three characters, played out in real-time before you.
First there’s the fickle, contradictory and unsettling Miss Julie. Referred to as “mad” before she even enters the stage, it seems she is a danger, even for herself, to know. Maxine Peake fantastically plays a Miss Julie who is unnervingly excitable and flippantly changeable and always fully, sexually charged.
Then there is the Count’s Manservant Jean. Cocksure and aspiring to rise above his station, Jean is played with a touching brutality by Joe Armstrong. Having loved Miss Julie since they were children, Jean is engaged (though with a sense of comedy by both) to Kristin, the household cook.
Kristin, though not involved in the main bulk of the action, is a uniquely essential character and offers an insightful point-of-reference to which the topic of the play continually springs back to. A devout Christian and happy to stay in her place provided that ‘those above her’ are something worth looking up to, Kristen is less a voice of reason, and more an embodiment of the reasons behind such complex gender and class issues in the first place. In the hands of Carla Henry, Kristen is played with a headstrong pathos that fills you with admiration and sympathy. Brilliantly knotted in sentiment and astutely right.
Once Kristen is either out of the way or conveniently asleep, it doesn’t take long for the action to elevate between Jean and Miss Julie who has entered the kitchen quarters in search of company, excitement and something or someone that she can connect with. Jean is jacket off and in his own quarters but in the presence of his ‘better’ who flips between a known notion of gender and class hierarchy and a hell-bent determination to destroy it. What unfolds is ugly, convoluted and irrational, just like the themes that fuse it.
Raised, by her late mother, to both think and aspire like any man, and also to hate men, Miss Julie is like a Nordic Estella. In Peake’s capable hands, she flicks, like a light switch, between the role of Dominatrix and submissive servant wanting orders. Jean, though critical of such changeability, is equally so. He dives between love-struck child and brutish yob with the flippancy of someone who knows his place but blatantly wishes he didn’t. Over-charged and out of place, together they cross the gender and class divide in the form of quick, off-stage sex. This decision is made lightly, but carries with it, as it still does, an immeasurably heavy weight.
The static between them is both exciting and dangerous and infiltrated by a sharp witticism that makes light of things while ironically highlighting them. In response to Jean’s tale of an impoverished childhood, Miss Julie frivolously yawns, “What a bore it must be being poor”. Equally humorous and unsympathetic is Jean’s retort to Miss Julie’s hysterical call for a death pact of “I think we might be better off in the Hotel trade”. While he yearns to run away to an independent life, which includes Miss Julie, her recklessness and intense considerations fill him with fear. Unable to indulge in her emotional dilemmas he claims, for his class, “Love is a game we play when we get time from work”.
All the turmoil and anxiety is brought to a brutal head as the Count returns home and something must be done to cover the tracks left by the actions of the night. It is, quite literally, fight or flight time. In an act that parallels the conclusion to Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, Miss Julie asks to be told to conclude things with a finality that is irreversible.
Each character ultimately leaves for what they believe they deserve. Kristen exits the stage, for the last time, to go to church. Miss Julie and Jean – with all options before them and seemingly no options at all – choose, respectively, a living death, or death itself; I left wondering, which was worse.
The set of Miss Julie, with its electric blue light and bluntness is the perfect platform for such shocking bleakness. The dialogue, expertly adapted by David Eldridge, is spiky and raw and the performances engulfing and unsettling. Peake, Armstrong and Henry are galvanic in their exploration of issues that, don’t simply taint but, charge through the lives we live.
We bought this lovely foil windmill from Whitby. We found it sat overlooking the seaside under blue skies blowing happily. We’ve stuck it in our garden which is far from the sea and currently rainy and grey. Because they add such delightfully, tacky brightness to the place I think they are happier about their current situation and not at all resentful. They spin with glee.