A Microcosm of Our Time – Polly Stenham’s electric new adaptation of a Victorian classic: Julie
TW: drug abuse, suicide
Written by Polly Stenham and directed by Carrie Cracknell, Julie is the electric new adaptation of August Strinberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. Once a naturalistic play about class, Julie catapults its predecessor into the 21st Century and, out of Sweden, into contemporary London. With the drug abuse, casual sex and Boomtown-esque outfits, it’s funny to wonder how Strinberg’s original Victorian audience may feel about Julie today.
Released in early September this year, the National Theatre’s breathless new play is surreal and exciting, poignant and gut-wrenching. The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby (NT Live: A Streetcar Named Desire) draws you in as the titular Julie; she’s sensual and vulnerable and deeply scarred after the suicide of her mother and the breakdown of her engagement. The Amen Corner’s Eric Kofi Abrefa stands stern as Jean, the attractive but ambiguously moralistic chauffeur of Julie’s absent father. Thalissa Teixeira is the play’s moral compass; playing Julie’s ‘maid’ Kristina, there’s a weird blurring of the lines between what it means to be someone’s friend and to be someone’s employee.
With a cast of only three, if you discount the rabble of dancing, drugged-up party-goers in their glitter and sequins and excess, the play feels intimate in a way that threatens to break open conventions and ask the uncomfortable questions. It’s refreshing to see that no one in this play is one-dimensional. It may be called ‘Julie’ but really the play is about so much more than the pampered but deeply unhappy daughter of some absent businessman in the city. There’s intersectional feminism, there’s race, there’s class and privilege and, as Eric Kofi Abrefa says in National Theatre Live: Intro to Julie, “it’s a microcosm of modern life.”
Troublingly, it’s the selfishness of the characters that really shines through. None of the party-goers snorting lines and climbing on the furniture and trashing Julie’s kitchen actually care about the girl whose birthday party they’re attending. Julie, while flawed, is actually deeply inappropriate and cruel when it comes to how she treats Jean and Kristina, flitting between moments of friendly intimacy, sexual intimacy and then dehumanising distance as she returns to the employer/employee relationship. The action takes place in an upstairs/downstairs set-up that might remind an audience of Downtown Abbey with the luxury and extravagance of Julie’s partying life upstairs, and the monotony and injustices of Kristina and Jean’s employment in the kitchen. Julie is utterly insensitive to Kristina’s desperate cleaning attempts, washing glasses, filling and refilling dishwashers while Julie climbs across tables and acts more like a sixteen-year-old at their first festival than a thirty-three-year old woman.
When the play begins, Jean and Kristina are engaged and, it seems, happily so. Jean frets about Julie’s ‘wild’ behaviour; he disapproves of her selfishness, excessive lifestyle and calls out her inappropriate behaviour but he has an uncomfortably disciplinary tone that goes a little way past just being protective of the daughter of his employer. It’s uncertain whether his moralistic view is an echo of the previous Victorian text, or if he has some kind of romantic attachment to Julie, or if he is simply moralising to criticise her and to have the upper hand.
And Jean is restless. While evidently not enjoying her employment with Julie, Kristina seems accustomed to her role as a maid, sending money back to her son in Brazil and studying to get her qualifications. Jean likes to remind Julie that he is highly educated and comes from opulence; he wants to escape his life as a chauffeur, buy some land and build a business. But his grand plans fall short. He mistreats Kristina in sleeping with Julie and plays a cruel power game of hope and promises with a girl who he can see is clearly mentally ill.
One thing I noticed with some discomfort in Julie is the subtle repetition of history. We hear in the play that Julie’s mother was a ‘complicated’ woman who committed suicide to be found by her young daughter. As is entirely understandable, Julie remains traumatised. Already at a low-point in her life, she spirals downwards in her own self-destruction until, having been rejected by Jean – her final hope – she too commits suicide by overdose. Kristina finds her. Despite knowing about Julie’s affair with her fiancé and all the cruelties of her employer, Kristina still runs to her aid and the play ends with Julie dead to one side of the stage while Kristina screams and runs around frantically, ringing (one assumes) an ambulance. Will Kristina follow in the footsteps of these two women? Is this a distinctly female fate? How have Julie’s father and Jean come and gone, taking what they wanted of the women and then leaving to avoid the uncomfortable consequences? The lack of male responsibility in the play is striking, particularly in Jean’s absence in Julie’s final moments.
It is interesting that earlier in play Julie tells us about her recurring dream in which she is a bird, initially somewhere warm and safe, and then suddenly there’s a violent clanging of metal and a white light. Later on, following her affair with Jean and hysterically planning to run away together, Jean convinces Julie to kill her pet bird. She puts it in a blender. From the warmth and safety of the bird’s cage to the violent clanging of blender blades and then nothingness. In a way it feels like Julie dies then, before her overdose, and somehow Jeans feels very complicit in that death. The play also tackles this idea of self-indulgence. Having just slept together, Jean and Julie descend into an intense discussion about Julie’s state of mind in which Jean savagely and explicitly calls Julie’s sadness self-indulgence. He argues desperately that he and many others, who don’t have the time and privilege that Julie has, can’t indulge in their sadness like she can. They have to get up and they have to go to work and they just have to get on with it. I don’t know where I stand on this; I find it uncomfortable and maybe that’s the point. Maybe Jean is wrong; maybe Julie is; maybe they both are.
The National Theatre’s Julie is one of those plays that confuses you. I can’t figure out where the right and wrong starts and ends. There’s a desperation and a fragility intertwined delicately with the excessive lifestyle a lot of people would recognise as distinctly 21st Century. It really is a microcosm of our time.