Miss Julie

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Feb 14-23: Joan Knight Studio, Perth 
Feb 27 – Mar 2: The Tron, Glasgow
Mar 6-9: Festival Studio, Edinburgh

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Me & the wife love going to Perth to sample the ‘Horsecross’ contribution to the Scottish cultural landscape. Its a pleasant, unbusy evening’s drive from East Lothian & over the Bridges, where Perth’s shabby chic, warm & welcoming Venue eaterie has just started a new menu. Scottish Tapas. While tucking into our Ceasar Salad with Halloumi, & Tempura Broccoli, we were informed by the staff that David from the Gin Bar had watch’d Miss Julie & had developed a strong opinion on the piece.

Take an old foreign play, take a funky young debut director, see what you get. This, then, would be something like the season-opening Miss Julie from Horsecross Arts. First staged in Stockholm in 1888, writer August Strindberg whisks us to the estate of a Swedish Count – in whose ‘cat-is-away’ absence the drama unfolds. Adapted for the English language by Zinnie Harris, the setting fast-forwards to 1920s Scotland, & the middle of the General Strike. The next link in the chain was director, Shilpa T-Hyland, last year’s first ever recipient of Perth Theatre’s Cross Trust Young Director Award. To Shilpa, Miss Julie is, “a fantastic adaptation which really resonates for me with contemporary issues of intersectional conversation and the moments where we fail to reach each other.”

The Joan Knight studio theatre in Perth is a cubic delight, with a stage deep & wide enough to host quality productions. The play we saw there last night has only three characters – archetypically The Maid, The Butler & The Mistress. The action is wholly set in the working scullery of a stately home, into which struts a drunken Miss Julie – there is a party happening upstairs – to flirt with the butler, John, who has already been flirting massively with Christine, the maid. This, then, is the chief wormhole of the play; the creation, attraction & resolution of the chemistry between a count’s daughter & his chief servant.

I found Miss Julie an unusual piece to judge, it had as many merits as faults; intimations of genius, expressions of vaudevillian amateurism. As a spectacle it was perfectly watchable, there wasn’t a skipped beat for the full ninety minutes, & the idea – when class struggle is subsumed by sexual desire – was entirely engaging. Objectively we were never bored. But the ‘performance’ could have been done better, & when I say performance I mean that of the original playwright & his modern-day adaptor. We are not an 1888 audience.

As for the actors, on her third return to Perth, the ever-charismatic Helen Mackay as Christine was fastidiously wonderful. Beside her, Lorn MacDonald’s smooth-talking, slick-set John was bristling with talent, & together they were scintillating – Scottish theatre at its very best. Alas, Hiftu Quasem was a little too dry, a little too rushed, a little too unbelievable for her part. She was supposed to be playing a sultry, kinky, upper-class psycho, but the steaminess was less boiling kettle & more simmering saucepan. When there are only three characters, a play balances on a tripod, & with one unsteady leg the whole thing may simply collapse.

The whole third scene was like a boxing match, in which Julie & John – a soul-consuming love cloud hanging over their heads – exchanged blows from a constantly flipping emotional high ground. Without any dramatic pauses whatsoever. Then the line, “we have gone through in one night what married couples go through in 30 years,” popped out into the play to titters from the audience. I mulled on it for a moment & then realised that the whole 20 minutes may have been built around that entire gag. In reality, the entire scene was practically needless, or better for being heavily condensed, & I tend to feel that without it the play would have been much improved.

A confused & convoluted affair, like classical Roman theatre, I found Miss Julie sometimes skyrocketingly brilliant, sometimes pitilessly pithy, sometimes hysterically melodramatic. It seems Miss Julie may have lost something in the translation.

Damian Beeson Bullen

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Posted on February 17, 2019, in Scotland. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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