The streets of Manchester are currently lined with banners promoting Maxine Peake in the lead as Miss Julie. The buzz about this Swedish play by August Strindberg written in 1888, is palpable. Thankfully it’s not 1hr 40mins of Swedish (no interval) as this production is a new version, written by David Eldridge from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund.
The back of the programme screams:
“I can’t run away, I can’t stay. I can’t live. I can’t die. Help me.”
It’s not a recipe for a cheery evening! However, it’s not all black and angst ridden, there are some (occasional) laugh out loud moments.
If there is one thing I would really recommend – then it’s read the excellent biography of August Strindberg and the historical context by Emeritus Professor Viv Gardner (University of Manchester) in the programme beforehand. It will give you an extra dimension, which if you watch the performance ‘cold’, you may miss. Understand the man, his circumstances and the times in which it was written, and the play will come to life.
That’s not to say that the cast don’t animate it, but it’s a narrative with more u-turns than an over enthusiastic driving instructor. This play was written in a time of confusion – confusion about class and gender roles and written by a man who was confused about where he stood on it all. Having an underpinning knowledge will help you keep up.
Just as Strindberg wrote Miss Julie specifically for someone (his first wife Siri), this adaptation was written especially for Maxine Peake to take advantage of the ‘different energy’ she brings to the character. As someone who only really knew her as Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies – I have to say – wow! After five minutes of trying to imagine her saying “More chips in the deep fat fryer Bren” and failing, I got over myself and got on with the play. Maxine Peake was very good.
The play is set on midsummer’s night and the recently un-engaged Miss Julie is behaving in an unbefitting manner. Had it been set in present day, she’d have arrived on stage in a flashing pink cowboy hat! She is the Count’s daughter – the Count is away and Miss Julie is down below with the servants and on the prowl. She’s a mixture of overt confident sexuality, class driven dominance and hysterical unhinged. She’s got her eye on her father’s valet Jean (Joe Armstrong) and he’s had his eye on her since he was a young boy on the wrong side of the class divide.
Jean however is engaged to the cook, Kristin (Carla Henry) and what develops between the three of them around a simple kitchen table, is a moral inversion – it’s the ‘below stairs’ characters who strive to keep order and decency. As Kristin says, if the upper classes behave with such a lack of moral code, then what is all their striving to better themselves for, if that’s what they are aspiring to?
I found myself wrong footed continually by the twists and turns of the “I love you, I hate you, I want to die, tell me what to do” dialogue. Having read the interview with writer David Eldridge, this is deliberately to reflect the random tangents of real conversations. Hardly surprising then that Strindberg, the original author was divorced three times and had complicated relationships with women!
There is a lot which is very good about this production, mainly the wonderful Carla Henry and Maxine Peake who is luminous at the start and grey by the end. If the mark of a good play is a long and heated discussion afterwards, then Miss Julie certainly delivers. Did I enjoy it? The answer is yes – but more so once I understood it.
Miss Julie is showing at The Royal Exchange Theatre, St Anne’s Square, Manchester from 11th April – 12th May 2012. For more information and to book tickets please click here
(Evenings) Monday – Friday, 7.30pm / Saturday, 8.00pm
(Matinees) Wednesdays, 2.30pm / Saturdays, 4.00pm
(Extra Matinee) Tuesday 24 April, 2.30pm