CITIZENS THEATRE, GLASGOW
Twice in recent years Scottish theatre audiences have borne witness to the continuing, searing power of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. In 2012 Yaël Farber’s extraordinary relocation of the play to modern South Africa (adding racism to the play’s already combustible combination of brutal class and gender relations) was, deservedly, the toast of the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2006, as part of its inaugural programme, the National Theatre of Scotland toured Zinnie Harris’s adaptation (set, plausibly, in Scotland during the industrial militancy of the mid-1920s) to smaller performance spaces around the country.
Strong though it was, the necessarily small scale of the NTS production meant that the mutually catastrophic attraction between John (head butler to a mighty, aristocratic mill owner) and Julie (the master’s daughter) seemed a little stinted. A paradox of this potent tragedy is that its famously oppressive atmosphere needs room to breathe. Dominic Hill’s excellent revival for the Citizens Theatre gives it that.
From the very outset, the production carries an almost asphyxiating tension. When John (Keith Fleming) returns to his fiancée, fellow servant Christine (Jessica Hardwick), in the great house’s drab kitchen, he is sweating like a stallion, exhilarated-yet-frightened, following his exertions at the dance being held by the striking mill workers. He is followed in short order by Julie (Louise Brealey, of the BBC’s Sherlock fame), who is disconcertingly agitated and uninhibited.
What follows is a tightly-wrought drama of transgression, bitter antagonism and cataclysmic seduction. Despite, perhaps because of, his socialist sympathies, John cannot resist the opportunity to bed Julie, who is (following the death of her mother) the lady of the house. By turns tender, lovelorn and cruel, Fleming is palpably torn by the welter of mutually antagonistic instincts within him.
For her part, Brealey impresses greatly as, with a fatalistic audacity, she tears down the prohibitions on her erotic life. She shifts, almost in an instant, between desperate vulnerability (in which she seems as helpless as the little finch she keeps in a cage) and angrily asserted social superiority.
Hardwick’s nicely balanced Christine – an upright Christian with a hard-earned sense of self-preservation – becomes an unexpected protagonist in the play’s terrifying dance of death. One might have wished for a little more moral weight in the drama’s frenzied closing scene, were it not for the brutal brilliance of its sudden, final moment.
Until February 15. For further information, visit: citz.co.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 9, 2014
© Mark Brown