Jermyn Street Theatre Autumn 2017
August Strindberg's unflinching examination of class and passion is so precisely balanced that a translator or director can tip it in any of several directions.
In the hands of adaptor Howard Brenton, director Tom Littler and a dedicated cast, it here becomes a demonstration of how two very different personalities can make the same mistake that leaves them in the same emotional and practical cul-de-sac.
Boredom and a bit of rebellion lead aristocratic Julie to impulsively join the servants in some Midsummer Eve dancing and then to flirt with her father's valet Jean. He calls her bluff and they spend the night together.
Dawn brings the slow realisation that a mistress who has strayed below her station is as doomed as a servant who has lusted above his.
She will be unmarriable among her equals and, even worse, the object of scorn and ridicule among the servants, while he will be simply unemployable once he is, inevitably, fired here.
They cope with their prospects differently, just as they got themselves into the trap for different reasons, but they remain equally trapped.
Director Littler here guides his actors to explore the psychology of the pair more than the class differences.
Charlotte Hamblin plays Julie as manic to the point of hysteria. The spoiled aristocrat's daughter wildly enjoys her slumming, wildly desires Jean, wildly resents afterwards, wildly grasps at hope of escape, wildly despairs.
It is a flashy and impressive performance by Hamblin, but more significantly a raw and brave one by an actress who holds nothing back in exposing her character's edge-of-madness nakedness.
James Sheldon's characterisation of Jean is quieter and more subtle, but also more rounded and complex.
Almost in passing, we notice his vanity, affectation, ambition and class resentment, and we spot that even when uncharacteristically carried away by passion he has one eye on possible practical benefits. And yet we also believe when what seemed to be his dominant cool-headedness proves to be more fragile than he or we suspected.
If what we discover here about Julie is that she experiences everything on the same hysterical level, we watch Jean discovering things about himself that he will now have to live with. Julie may suffer the greater agonies and face the darker fate, but in this production the play is ultimately Jean's.
In the sometimes thankless role of the cook and nominally Jean's betrothed Kristin, Izabella Urbanowicz generously gives the play a needed anchor in sane and uncomplicated ordinariness that allows us to measure how far from the norm the other two have strayed.
I have seen productions of Miss Julie that underlined the class barriers or the sexual tensions or the midsummer magic, or that found different keys to the personalities. That this director and these actors found fresh and fascinating new things to show us is evidence of their talent and the richness of Strindberg's text.
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