Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Julie/ Machinal

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Julie/ Machinal

Article excerpt

Polly Stenham starts her overhaul of Strindberg's Miss Julie with the title. She gives the 'Miss' a miss and calls it Julie. The wonder of Strindberg is that his characters speak to us with such force, knowingness and candour that they seem to belong to our own era. Modernising the setting destroys the wonder. This is a textbook lesson in how to kill by transplantation. We're in a London mansion owned by an absent billionaire whose chauffeur, Jean, is casually seduced by a trustafarian coke fiend, Julie, on the night of her 33rd birthday. Julie's motives are lust, boredom, a need for attention and a perfunctory desire to sabotage Jean's forthcoming marriage to Kristina the cleaner, a bombshell from Brazil.

In Strindberg's original, Julie's act of rebellion is audaciously erotic and thrilling to watch. She sins three ways: against her father, against her class and against her duty of loyalty and patronage to the family servants. Here, Strindberg's intricate structure of prohibitions and taboos collapses and we're left with a couple of hip Londoners having a two-minute knee-trembler on the roof terrace. Beyond carnal attraction, there's nothing to keep them together, and in the real world these frenzied shaggers would know this was a one-night stand. Yet the script obliges them to make breathless plans about eloping and starting a restaurant business abroad. They sound like two over-excited teens who've just lost their virginity on a Youth Hostelling weekend.

The heroic defiance of Strindberg's Julie is completely flattened by Stenham who turns her into a talentless parasite approaching middle age. Jean is even harder to like. He's a wine snob and a love rat who has a priggish control-freak side. He wants to police Julie's social life while subtly investigating her financial position. As soon as he learns that she lacks access to daddy's cash, he cancels their elopement. The performers do their best to animate this airless and sometimes baffling script.

They're not helped by the design of the millionaire's kitchen, letterbox in shape, which looks like a luxury slaughterhouse. It's odd to choose a flattened oblong set that can only accentuate the Lyttelton's cumbersome lateral proportions. Wise designers would seek the opposite effect. The show's highlight comes with the execution of Julie's pet bird. At last, the up-to-date setting pays off because a modern kitchen is fitted with more lethal instruments than Strindberg could ever have imagined. There's a microwave, a toaster, a food blender, a washer-drier, an electric carving knife and a George Foreman two-portion grill. …

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