Patrick Marber’s AFTER MISS JULIE is a fascinating exercise in reinventing a classic and if the production playing as part of the Sydney Fringe is an imperfect rendering, it is nevertheless a watchable evening for both a Strinbergian like myself or like my friend, someone without the preconceptions of the initiated. Presented in the close confines of The Sandstone Cottage in busy, noisy Spice Alley there is much to be said for being so near to the performers. SPea Productions have taken this proximity seriously in their preparations and there is considerable charm and attraction in the period features of the show.
This play is ‘after’ the August Strindberg classic of naturalism MISS JULIE. A play which was scandalous in its time for dealing with taboo subjects. Subjects still considered shocking when this play takes place, no longer in 1888 Sweden but 1945 in England. Still set in the kitchen of a landed estate, Kristen and Jean in the original become Christine and John, they are servants in the household of Miss Julie’s father. Christine is cook and John is chauffeur and general hand to the great man.
The events take place on the night when Winston Churchill’s conservative government has suffered a huge electoral blow and is ousted by British Labour. The servants are celebrating and Miss Julie is joining in, much to the shock of the staff who are gossiping loudly about her loose ways. Returning from his work, John has promised to dance with Christine with whom he has an understanding of a future together and she has made him his favourite meal. Miss Julie will seek John out and the evening will be an exposition of class, lust and betrayals all round.
This is a play, as was the original, about sex. The rituals and repercussions thereof. It is raw desire and the implications of power, control and the lack or loss of both. This production works hard to develop this aspect and succeeds in places. Where it does do a good job is in its exploration of the overt impact of class on sexual behaviours. The three characters are well defined by their roles within the household when we meet them.
Christine played by Natalie Freeman is weary, stiff with overwork and class inequity and an assumed belief in the future of her relationship with John. Danen Young’s John does exhibit some of the assumptions of his gender and as Miss Julie, Scarlet Hunter, brings out the conflicted nature of desire. Each of the cast has moments when they shine. Hunter does some terrific work in the early morning scene, Young has a well expressed weakness in the bell sequences and Freeman gives Christine real starch in her final confrontation. Director Sean O’Riordan has used the intimacy well in his staging.
Being so close gives the audience a chance to appreciate the effort that has gone into the atmospheric elements of AFTER MISS JULIE. Costume and props are well sourced in the main, though one might advise them to put a little water in the ashtray to reduce to impact on the front row. Smoking was endemic in this period and it is realistically portrayed. The production is well styled, much more so than most other Sydney Fringe efforts. The production company SPea writes in the program that they “are passionate about creating experiences in non-traditional environments” and based on the commitment in this production, that is something to look out for.