Strindberg’s Miss Julie presented a 19th-century audience with a shocking inter-class relationship that highlighted Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ ideas. Like many recent adaptations, Polly Stenham’s Julie favoured aesthetics coupled with shocking scenes of drug taking and suicide that pulled the once horrible and bratty Julie into unfitting role of an anti-heroine, thus forgetting the original intention of the play itself.
As the curtains opened, Tom Scutt’s set design intrigues. The class divide screamed out from the wash of bright club lighting of the upstairs that slowly seeps into the minimalistic appearance of the quiet downstairs kitchen area. The lighting appeared to be more vibrant than the relationship between Julie (Vanessa Kirby) and Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), which felt sudden and lacked stage presence. The themes that the original Miss Julie hinged on are far from the modern feminist approach presented in Stenham’s Julie, Strindberg himself being well known as a misogynist.
“Julie’s exploration of her mental health was one of the only aspects of the play that really drew me into the performance and made me believe in the character.”
I commend the attempt to cleanse the piece of its misogynistic vibes, but when you travel so far from the original piece, is it really an adaptation? One thing Stenham kept from the original is the naturalistic acting style. However, Jean and Julie’s relationship felt forced and seemed to remain neutral, not being overly vicious like Strindberg’s pair but at the same time, never crossing over into genuine love either. The naturalism removed any sense of excitement and instead made the play feel almost like a fly on the wall scenario. The first scene was clearly there to try to convey a wholesomeness, an attempt to make the audience respect both Jean and Kristina whilst judging Julie’s flamboyant behaviour. I was bored at watching Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) fill different dishwashers as Julie danced and climbed over furniture. Nothing about the characters captivated particularly and it took away the whole focus to be caught by the performance.
A lot of the naturalistic encounters seemed to be in place to have us believe in the play which seems the purpose of naturalism anyway. However, the short length of the play dismissed any real chance to explore the characters and their problems, those of which should have been fleshed out, making the play a more believable exploration of human psychology as naturalism should be.
Julie’s exploration of her mental health was one of the only aspects of the play that really drew me into the performance and made me believe in the character. Her discussion of depression and unexplained emotions gives me grounds to commend Stenham; she put into words what few can. Her presentation of the mental health issue was perfectly communicated by Vanessa Kirby. Jean’s attempt to connect with her on that front did create an interesting dynamic. Was he just trying to play her or did he actually understand her feelings? The quick transition between fights and love-making made it hard to tell.
But in 95 minutes, I was not able to come to any solid conclusion. That was simply because the information given was vague and didn’t lead anywhere. A brief mention of Julie’s abortion was just that, a brief mention. Surely such a life-changing choice correlates to her current behavior and, as such, it should have been explored beyond just a brief mention. Like a lot of the writing in this adaptation, everything was rushed with no conclusive opinions regarding Stenham’s intended themes. Many adaptations fall victim to this and pick and choose aspects of a text that work with the writer’s agenda, missing out on the intentions of the original playwright and muddling their own intentions in the process.
“Many of the key features of Strindberg’s Miss Julie are missing, making me wonder if one should even call this an adaptation.”
A piece that is done with a naturalistic style should grasp me in other ways; in its writing or in its clearly explored themes. I should leave the theatre with something to talk about beyond the aesthetics. Something Strindberg used throughout Miss Julie were pets and animals to highlight Julie’s need to be in control and be surrounded by people to conceal her own insecurities alongside her lack of skill. The intention of the abortion for her dog in the original play was to show Julie’s need to remove any reminder of her dog’s “unfaithfulness”, as in Julie’s view hers was the only love that the dog should have needed. However, the dog in this adaptation simply highlight’s Julie’s rejection of modern medicine, which leads to a comment on the Xanax in her bag which further leads to her suicide at the end of play. Whilst it is a part in the story, I didn’t need it to be explained to me; I could see the pills and I could see her taking them; where they came from doesn’t affect why she takes her own life.
Had this been presented to me as an original play rather than an adaptation, I might have enjoyed it more. Many of the key features of Strindberg’s Miss Julie are missing, making me wonder if one should even call this an adaptation. The basic story is there, but the two plays are not the same; the diabolical nature of both Jean and Julie is lost and they are not the same characters. Presenting the play as an adaptation is perhaps partly the reason for its downfall and the lack-lustre themes and the absence of emotional connection between the characters just hammered the nails in the coffin.