Miss Julie

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
Miss Julie, Melbourne Theatre Company
Photograph: Jeff Busby

Helpmann-winning director Kip Williams (Suddenly Last Summer) tackles Strindberg's transgressive and class-busting heroine for the MTC, with mixed results

Every so often we need reminding that the battle of the sexes has always been a rancid war of attrition. August Strindberg’s Miss Julie teaches us that when it comes to poisonous gender relations, many of the differences between late nineteenth century Sweden and contemporary Melbourne are purely cosmetic. Director Kip Williams’ production for MTC revels in the anachronisms while keeping the parallels in play; it’s not entirely successful, but even its flaws are intriguing.

There have been recent productions of Miss Julie that transpose and update it, but here Williams opts for an ostensibly Swedish, turn-of-the-century setting. Alice Babidge’s dazzling set and costumes nod to the period rather than slavishly recreate it; with its ultra-chic minimalism and easy luxury, it could come from any recent Scandinavian interior design book.

The performances also walk a tricky line: they are suggestive of the period while broadly contemporary enough to admit an avalanche of “fucks”. The addition of high-tech cameras, constantly recording and projecting the live action onto screens, brings to a head the highly ambivalent attitude this production has to its source material.

Miss Julie [Robin McLeavy] is discussed before she is seen. Her father’s valet Jean [Mark Leonard Winter] talks disparagingly of her to his fiancé/not his fiancé, the cook Kristin [Zahra Newman]. The lady of the house has been dancing with the help on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and Jean is appalled. He’s also clearly turned on. Kristin knows it, Jean knows it, and disastrously, Julie knows it too. This sexual tension, and the consequent fall-out, drives the action of the play to its tragic conclusion.

Transgression is at the heart of this piece; a very distinct and ancient line separates the low-born Jean from the aristocratic Julie, and the pleasure and pain of its crossing is palpably realised. The attraction and the repulsion the central lovers oscillate between is as much socially as psychologically determined. This doesn’t excuse their often appalling behaviour, but it does contextualise it.

McLeavy is initially troubling as Julie, her coquettishness too arch and her sexuality too flippant to suggest a woman on the verge of destruction. But soon we begin to see the rage and hunger beneath this surface, and she grows beautifully into the role. Her final determination comes off as strangely noble and convincing.

Winter is also very good as the coming man, able to simultaneously suggest a charlatan and a kind of pained Lothario, a good-time guy who slowly morphs into something more sinister and suffocating. Newman is expert as the voice of reason, her own unspoken guilt and hatred peeping through her obsequiousness.

Technically, the production is quite fine and will only improve. The multi-media is central to Williams’ interpretation and not just a simple device. The bifurcation of the audience’s attention – this constant movement of the eye from the intimacies of the screen to the greater perspective of the stage – perfectly mirrors the characters’ own lurches from the passionate intensity of their emotions to the cold reality of their social constructs. It is such an encompassing metaphor, it feels like Brecht without the placards.

Sadly, many of the subtleties that Williams brings to this production are violently undermined by a misguided rewriting of the original script’s ending. The resolution isn’t worth giving away, but suffice to note that it departs from Strindberg to disastrous effect. A protofeminist addendum might have worked if it were nuanced and open-ended, delicately shifting our perspective; this is crude and didactic and reductive. It’s a genuine pity, because much of the play is electric, and as strong an interpretation as you’re likely to see in a while.

By: Tim Byrne

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