Quelle surprise, but Polly Stenham – poet laureate of the idle rich – has found more sympathy than most in her take on the posh anti-heroine of Strindberg’s endlessly adapted ‘Miss Julie’.
Unlike the usual haughty mistress of the house, Vanessa Kirby’s Julie is a gawky, underachieving party girl. When she embarks upon a desperate fling with her father’s servant Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), it seems she does so to alleviate the awful loneliness she feels, and her terrible, crushing inadequacy at her stalled literary career. She can be arrogant and nasty, but fundamentally she seems vulnerable and lost. If we can’t look past her privilege, neither can we look past her humanity. (Without banging on about it, it’s surely not too fanciful to imagine Stenham has made the part semi-biographical).
When the meltdown comes, it comes at the end of a brutal, booze-and-drug-fuelled birthday binge. Julie hooks up and clashes with Jean, despises herself for her betrayal of Jean’s fellow servant and girlfriend Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira), and luches towards the abyss. All the iconic/grim moments of the Strindberg original are there (bird lovers beware), but they're smartly rationalised by the intoxication.
Still, despite the fine, spiky performance from Kirby, who knows Julie can’t be too pleasant, Stenham’s empathetic script is in danger of taking the edge out of the tale. But that’s very much compensated for by Carrie Cracknell’s superlative production.
A stylised, hyperkinetic, slightly horrifying dance party – somewhere between ‘Nathan Barley’ and ‘The Matrix’ – churns sweatily away behind a screen that periodically raises and lowers (there's great choreography from Ann Yee). Down in the kitchen, Jean and Kristina chat, the room touched by warped rumbles of music, distorted, washed out lights, and while wasted, giggling guests who stumble in and run off, tittering. As the production moves towards its bleak endgame, the language and the music fade –even Jean seems to drop out – and Julie’s exhaustion, demons and comedown all catch up with her in a dreamy swirl of horror.
Cracknell’s production is viscerally effective where Stenham’s adaptation feels soft focus. Certainly there is a lot of stuff about class – and, indeed, race – that simply doesn’t get examined here. But maybe that’s besides the point: the physical sense of a life accelerating out of control is both exhilarating and horrifying, like being forced to watch somebody else’s nightmare, or seeing a rollercoaster accelerating faster and faster and faster until the inevitable occurs.