Johan August Strindberg
Directed by Zoe Thomas-Webb
Pros: A fantastic script furnished by a clean and appropriate design are the highlights in this production.
Cons: The sexual tension and gripping drama of Strindberg’s script are muted, making the action seem unfounded and unconvincing.
Our Verdict: Strindberg’s classic exploration of the politics of desire, gender, and class is always worth checking out, but this particular version fails to take full advantage of what the script has to offer.
|Courtesy of Urgent Breath Theatre
Strindberg’s Mistress Julie
is a classic one-act piece revolving around class and gender struggles, and culminating in a wrenching finale. It’s a long-time favourite script of mine, and having seen Riverside Studio’s
take on the same piece last month, my appetite was whet for another staging, this time at the Baron’s Court Theatre
from the Urgent Breath theatre company. Like many modern adaptations of the play, director Zoe Thomas-Webb (who also adapted the script) chose to add racial politics into the mix as well. Urgent Breath’s version takes place on a plantation in Mississippi on 4 July 1928, and documents the brief but heated affair between the plantation owner’s daughter and valet, which becomes an intense struggle for power after the two give in to their inconceivable desire for one another. It is, in all moments, the story of a drunken night gone wrong, star-crossed lovers, and embittered subjects imprisoned in limiting classes. It leaves you with a lot to chew on.
The scene is well set from the get-go for this particular production, with set and costume creating an immediate atmosphere. The Baron’s Court’s basement theatre is a great choice of venue for the piece, which takes place in the servants’ kitchen of the plantation manor home. The set is appropriately sparse, but includes just the right elements of detail to suggest the period and the reality of the action. Additionally, costumes are well-designed and colours and materials aptly chosen for each character. Cassie, an essentially innocent bystander remains in neutral and light colours throughout, while Julie takes a rosy champagne frock which hints at her innocence and also her eventual taintedness. Jean, the valet is seen in both work and formal wear – each outfit retains a rigidness, which suggests his roughness and adherence to formality, as well as his confusion and desire regarding his class status.
Despite the thoughtful elements of design, the production floundered in performance. The characters lacked depth and believability – not merely because the Mississippi accents were overplayed and unconvincing, but additionally because the chemistry which is so necessary for the script to have influence is completely lacking. The tension and desire between Jean and Julie which is meant to drive the play forwards is decidedly absent here – rather it appears we have a bored, foolish girl and an indecisive man – more the recipe for a romantic comedy than a gripping battle of wills which culminates in tragedy. Without the momentum of conflicting emotions and feelings of entrapment, desperation, and anger at their status in life which plague the pair, the 75 minute production can be dry and difficult to bear. Luckily, Gina Abolins (Julie) offers a brief redemption with her delivery of Julie’s denouncement of Jean near the play’s end – the conviction in this moment was captivating.
Unfortunately, while the original script offers a lot to modern productions, it seemed that this version didn’t explore the complex emotional possibilities presented, and thus we ended up with a lifeless performance. I found no character particularly pitiable or detestable, despite my knowledge and personal prejudices from having read the script previously – this production neither affirmed nor subverted by preconceived notions, leaving me with an experience which was beige, a sad fact when it had the potential to be red hot. Finally, because the development of the relations between the characters lacked gusto, so did the conclusion. It seemed a bit confusing and out of place – a bad spot to find yourself in when the final decision is meant to, by the very lines spoken, appear inevitable and tragically unavoidable. In the end, I was unaffected, and this was the true tragedy of this production’s finale.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!
Mistress Julie runs at the Baron’s Court Theatre until 7th July 2013.
Box Office: 020 8932 4747, or purchase tickets at the door.