Stone’s Lolita…after Strindberg: Review of Belvoir’s Miss Julie

by theatrebloggers

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Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) is currently playing at Belvoir Street Theatre in an adapted form courtesy of Mr Simon Stone. Under its new guise the story is transposed from Swedish aristocracy to the private home of a high-profile Australian politician; yet the story is still basically the same. Jean is the driver and head of security for the unseen father of 16 year old Miss Julie. Julie’s father is away in China on a diplomatic mission, and whilst away it is Jean’s job to keep Julie out of trouble. She, however, is determined to cause trouble. With the allure of a nymph, she seduces Jean, and against his better judgement he succumbs. What follows are the consequences of their actions.

Simply put, Miss Julie and Jean represent each others ‘other’. Jean comes from a poor working-class family and he’s struggled hard to make something of himself. Julie comes from privilege, but suffers from the inevitable constrictions that go with it: a father she hardly knows and an inability to live a normal, teenage life. Each desires what the other has: Jean wants to be a somebody and Julie wants the anonymity and normality of being a nobody. Their coupling though, only brings tragedy as neither is able to function outside of their established place in society. Ultimately the play could be read as a cautionary tale as to the dangers of stepping outside of one’s rightful place. Of course there is a lot more going on: a beautiful power struggle establishes between the two as Julie holds social sway over Jean, whilst Jean (as a male) holds physical sway over her (more evident in the second act). The to and fro between them as they jockey for control is very engaging.

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Now, Belvoir would have us believe that this is Miss Julie (2013) by Simon Stone after August Strindberg so a comparison is invited. Full credit must be given to Stone’s adaptation of the first act: the setting is completely changed from the country manor of a Count to the contemporary home of a politician and he remains very true to the original spirit of the play. In fact, he has quite elegantly achieved this transition. In the second act though, which is by no means terrible – it is still very tense and very watchable – Stone takes some liberties. He ramps up the sex, changes the temporal flow and radically alters Jean’s character. In the original, the Jean of the second act is revealed to be a conniving, calculating and cold character – the classic social climber. Stone turns him into more of a victim of circumstance and as a result some layers in the text are lost. One feels Jean’s motives are reduced to sexual impulse as opposed to the true desires of a social climber, like Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami or Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon for example. Is anything lost? Well, yes, a little. In her director’s note Leticia Cáceres stated that she was initially uncomfortable dealing with Strindberg’s misogynistic material. True, Strindberg had a reputation, and a play like The Father certainly falls into this category. However, it could be argued that Miss Julie doesn’t, at least not to the same extent. With Stone’s adaptation though, it becomes far more prominent. By reducing Jean’s motive, Miss Julie may now be seen as the femme fatale who leads him astray and ruins his life, whereas in the original the blame is more 50:50. These are side points though, for the play as a whole is still thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully performed.

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Brendan Cowell plays Jean, the head of security and bodyguard to Miss Julie, and every bit the working class man. Cowell effectively demonstrated just how hard an actor should work on stage – his characterisation of this great hulking figure was complexly layered with a consistent air of anxiety surrounding his interaction with Julie. Cowell mounts the sexual tension well; you can see the cogs turning, the conflict flashing before his eyes as he restricts himself and his movements. Cowell should also be congratulated on his fantastic comic timing which was absolutely flawless. Although Stone’s changes to the second act may have limited him, Cowell was nevertheless convincingly threatening and dangerous as he revealed more about the brute inside him. Overall, Cowell was simply brilliant and the true stand out in this production.

Yet with this in mind, Taylor Ferguson makes a wonderful stage debut as the young and naïve Miss Julie. She is Strindberg’s Lolita. She is very convincing as this lonely sixteen year-old who just wants to be loved and taken care of. She is perfectly immature but can mix this with great moments of clarity as she puts Jean back in his place with her sharp tongue. Ferguson also carried off the cope de grace with a fierce, frightening and deathly vulnerability. Ferguson’s only point of improvement would occur with some occasional direction, for example turning a scream into a simple irritation in order to carry off an effect with greater subtlety.

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Blazey Best as the simple yet hard working Christine was a delight to watch. Best gave us a lesson in subtlety and humility when it comes to characterisation. Best, though with much less stage time, made her mark and returned with a hard job to do in the second act. Unfortunately, Best suffered under some of Stone’s adaptation which caused her to become a touch two dimensional and as if she was playing a type. Best is however, a highly experienced actress who did a difficult part well.

Mention should go to the set: Miss Julie in 1888 was originally part of the naturalism movement in theatre and Robert Cousins has abided by that with his design. Taps run, the washing machine works, and one imagines that when the characters exit to use the bathroom they really do. Christine is even cooking a meal as the audience walks in which Jean goes on to eat it upon entering. It is also nice to see Stone’s material treated by a different director. One feels that the man has some talents when it comes to adaptation but Cáceres seems to have brought a level of humanity to the text that might otherwise have been lacking. As a whole the play is thoroughly enjoyable and one of the standouts to date in Belvoir’s season.

Miss Julie is playing until the 6th of October. For more information see:

http://belvoir.com.au/productions/miss-julie/

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