Julie

I don’t often make it out to the theatre these days. It’s a sad fact but a fact nonetheless, and one which I find particularly frustrating given that I have decided to dedicate my life to ‘treading the boards’. But being an actor and living with an eternally dusty bank account often go hand in hand.

Since moving back to my beloved West Country, I’ve struggled to stay in touch with the raucous and vibrant ecology of the London theatre scene. Some amazing productions have sadly passed me by because I’ve either been too skint to afford the theatre and train tickets combines, or (more happily) been stuck in rehearsals.

That’s why I find the recent development of the live screening culture of theatre, ballet and opera productions something of a godsend. When you live in the countryside, a hundred plus miles from the buzzing epicentre of your profession, being able to have an affordable glimpse into the world you so adore is like a little dose of sunshine on a chilly day.

So when my mum mentioned that the National Theatre’s production of Julie, written by Polly Stenham as an adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and directed by Carrie Cracknell, was screening at our local theatre, I jumped at the chance to see it. I’d been wanting to see Julie for months, being a fan of Vanessa Kirby (who portrays the title role), and Polly Stenham. Above all, I was curious to see how Strindberg’s work had been adapted by Stenham and Cracknell.

Now, I will confess that I am not a fan of Strindberg. I find it difficult to get on with a man who was a self confessed misogynist, and I know some say you should separate an artist from their work, but I do struggle to like Miss Julie as a play just as I now struggle to enjoy any movie in which Kevin Spacey features. However, I was willing and, perhaps surprisingly, excited to see what Cracknell and Stenham had created from the source text.

What I particularly love about live or encore theatre screenings are the behind-the-scenes features that are shown before the play begins or during the interval. For Julie, this glimpse behind the curtain was an insightful interview with Carrie Cracknell and Polly Stenham. Their intentions with Julie made me all the more excited to see the show as they discussed intersectional feminism, the examination of class and race, and acknowledging the importance of showing messy, complex women on stage. This was, as I whispered to my mum in the semi-darkness of the theatre, exactly my cup of tea.

There were a lot of things I loved about this production. Vanessa Kirby was a raw, fragile, electric presence of damaged caucasian femininity. She reminded me at times of a desiccated carapace or skeleton of a bean pod or leaf I used to have to draw in Year 7 art lessons – all bony angles, forever fidgeting as if in the ghost of a breeze, folding in on herself and contorting her tall, willowy frame into something small and waif-like. She captured Julie’s ingrained snobbery and thinly veiled bigotry with great precision. Indeed, it was this examination of the paper-thin acceptability of the white English upper middle classes which particularly struck me about this production.

Stenham and Cracknell’s decision to set Julie in contemporary London and explore the intersectionality of race and class was what, for me, made a reimagining of Strindberg’s work relevant in 2018. Of course the source text’s examination of class and gender will always be relevant, but in a world where the alt-right are gaining more political traction, and a man who is endorsed by the KKK sits in the White House, to ignore the connections between race, class, economic status and gender would br wilfully blindfolding yourself to the world we currently find ourselves in.

Julie’s interactions with her housekeeper Christina (played with beautiful sensitivity and charisma by Thalissa Teixeira) for me highlighted the awkward relationship many of the white middle classes of Britain experience in a multi-cultural, post-colonial and post-Brexit world. There is a kind of underlying assumption within middle England that the UK isn’t ‘as racist’ as other parts of the world because we never had the Jim Crow laws, the lynchings, and the cross burnings. But racism in Britain, in someways, is something more insidious, more toxic, because we often choose to quietly ignore it. A patronising tone here, a stereotypical assumption there, the awkward silences which can speak volumes more than a vitriolic Britain First’s speech potentially could. Stenham’s script and Kirby’s performance masterfully capture this uncomfortable reality as Julie plays the friend to both Jean and Christina, but immediately jumps back to the role of employer when the chips are down; she will only afford them her friendship so long as it suits her and she retains her superior position over them. Julie highlights the power of the privileged, to jump back and forth over the boundaries of propriety in whatever way suits her without much fear of consequence.

Yet, I have to admit, I left the screening still unconvinced that I can ever get onboard with the story of Miss Julie. I think the fact of the matter is, I just don’t like the story of Miss Julie – I can appreciate the strength and complexity and fragility of the characters, but at the end of the day, the plot doesn’t grab me in the way that other plays do. There were many elements of the story which I much preferred in this adaptation – the character of Jean for one. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s intelligent performance brought a likability to a character whom I had never particularly felt anything for. He still retained the patronising and controlling elements of the original character, but he had a charm and a charisma which made Julie’s attraction to him all the more believable.

I came away from the screening feeling troubled and somewhat riled, but then I suppose, that is exactly what was intended with this play. Julie is not a comfortable watch – it has moments of dark humour, horrendous tragedy and disturbing reverie – but I think at its heart, Julie is made to leave you feeling just as raw, just as unsettled as its titular anti-heroine. But then, sometimes, that’s what we need theatre to do.

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