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Miss Julie by Simon Stone after August Strindberg

Photo by Ellis Parrinder

Belvoir presents MISS JULIE by Simon Stone after August Strindberg in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir, Surry Hills.

This is the third production of MISS JULIE that I have seen in Sydney this year. The first, an adaptation of the 1888, August Strindberg play, by Cristabel Sved and Kate Box at the Darlinghurst Theatre in October last year. The other, in March this year, using the ‘classic’ 1964, Michael Meyer translation of the play. Interestingly, I am aware (and read, two of them) of three other recent, high profile versions of this text, internationally. MIES JULIE, adapted by Yael Farber, set on Freedom Day, in 2012, in post-apartheid South Africa – one of the arresting contemporary tensions is in the casting of a black actor as Jean to the white, wealthy, Julie. From the Schaubuhne Theatre, under the direction of the avant garde explorer, English Director, Katie Mitchell, FRAULIEN JULIE, which, using camera techniques, looks at the story unravelling through the eyes of Kristine, making the financée of Jean, the centre of the story. In Los Angeles, in March, Neil LaBute presented his examination of the play and shifted the location to pre-Stockmarket Crash, in 1929, in New York. There is, apparently, something about this great play that urges, this classic of naturalism, to be adapted for our times (my favourite adaptation is still the 2003, Patrick Marber: AFTER MISS JULIE).

Miss Julie at Belvoir is a new play, by Simon Stone, much like the texts/productions above, using the structure and characters of the original as a frame work, for his own cultural exploration of the Australian psyche. Mr Stone has broken this one act play into two separate acts and shifted his location to that of Australia – a cool, white, chic architecturally, spare, modern working kitchen and a cheap motel room (Set Design, Robert Cousins; Costume Design, Tess Schofield) – and to the present time. Miss Julie (Taylor Ferguson) has been infantilised and become a 16 year old, (in contrast to the mature woman of the original), daughter of a single parent, an absent father, a powerful politician (her feminist mother having committed suicide),  bursting with unexplored hormonal sexual inclinations, with all the arrogant psychology of the materially rich, but emotionally neglected child – a first cousin, indeed, to the young women examined in the recent Sofia Coppola film, THE BLING RING. A rampant tease, of Lolita proportions, plus the willingness to exert the power that wealth can give. Jean (Brendan Cowell) has become the gofer, chauffeur, visible gun-toting body guard, to this young woman. This Jean an ill educated and delusional social aspirant, equipped with a spreading, hulking physical decline and the sexual confidence of a balding middle aged predator – his greatest attraction, his sex, on the verge of extinction – is apparently, desperately restless in his needs – is Miss Julie the last opportunity for Jean’s juvenile ambitions to be achieved? Christine (Blazey Best), Jean’s fiancee is the patient realist to Jean, and the cook and house keeper for the Julie in her household. A dutiful employee, content, if not happy, with her circumstances – but at least they are her own – she has made and accepted them.

The play works as a sexual thriller, where our cultural cringe at the sexual dance between the inappropriate pairing of this young Julie with the grotesquely ambitious Jean is underlined by the sexual preening of the male against the, relatively, innocent ripening of the young female. The tension of sexual taboo is what creates enormous frisson, thrill, for the audience – the explicit nudity, of the second act, directed by Leticia Caceres, with the showcase reveal/display of the genitals of Jean (causing a vocal response from my audience “Oh, My god!”) including, then, centre stage, a bending over, to giving us the arse end view of Jean, ratchets up the wholly fascinating attraction/revulsion of the watching of the aged nakedness of Jean, and of  Miss Julie’s youthful response to it all (looking for daddy-father?) The Belvoir audience become complicit voyeurs in this primary cultural transgression.(Does the experience of this thrill justify this new work by Mr Stone and his appropriation of August Strindberg’s name and title of play? Whatever, using the famous progenitor is undoubtedly a good marketing ploy/ publicity tool at the box office.) It is a confronting moral tendentiousness that this production offers to us theatre goers to, ultimately, deal with (in more ways than one!) Does it recall the audience confrontations that Mr Stone set up in his very theatrical production of THYESTES, using the source material of the Roman poet, Seneca, a few years ago? Is it to much of a stretch to include his production of BAAL,  Brecht’s text, in this dramaturgical familiarity of in-yet-face artistry?

Coincidently, down at the atyp, at present, a play written by a 17 year old, Anya Reiss, SPUR OF THE MOMENT, deals with a similar situation and creates the same tension – neglectful adult figures and an inappropriate sexual behaviour between a 13 year old girl and a 21 year old man. The physical age differences are closer and less glaring in their contrast (and there is no nudity), but the psychological immaturity of the male figure and the biological urgings of the female, is shockingly similar and just as culpable. The juvenile writer, Ms Reiss, squibs, ultimately, on the possible consequences to such behaviour, and defuses, over simply, the resolution of the situation. Mr Stone’s MISS JULIE, does not do that, and it seems to count, a little, on our knowledge of the original play by Strindberg, as Julie finds Jean’s gun and begins a choreographed debate with it, in the motel climax to the play. The tension to the ending of this production is shocking and double edged in its contemporary moral resolution – a very youthful ‘Tarantino’ destination.

The performances are good. Ms Ferguson, making her stage debut, finds the range of this emotionally disabled young woman, from the innocent, gentle kitten to the clawed and vicious panther – the fittest, the best equipped, will continue to survive against the less prepared – and the ambiguity of the insights of the character and her actions are wonderfully, clearly demarcated throughout the unravelling of the narrative. Mr Cowell seems to inhabit this menace of stupid cruelty and opportunism with convincing physical choices, and psychologically, smoothly, moves the character choices to inevitable, excruciating fatalities, in front of us (this was as impressive, for me, as Mr Cowell’s work in the film NOISE, was, a few years ago). Ms Best has the least opportunity in this production to reveal a fully rounded character and is not as complex in her choices as she often can be – I was, vaguely, surprised, disappointed with what I was given to read.

This use of Strindberg’s creation, MISS JULIE, by Mr Stone is interesting in it’s narrowness of pre-occupation considering the richness of themes in the original. This MISS JULIE is, on the night I attended,  reduced to a kind of sexual thriller, that I have not experienced since the Sam Peckinpah film of STRAW DOGS (1971) or  Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR  1991 (or even the J.Lee Thompson 1962 original). It is, on those terms, not a bad night out for an R-rated entertainment. I don’t believe it is a very deep investigation of the original offers of the Strindberg. Two aberrantly behaved, emotionally juvenile men, the father (by implication) and the body guard, Jean, confront, in the battle of the sexes, two clever manipulative women, Christine and Julie, is a possible summary of this production of the play material offered by Mr Stone. When reading the MIES JULIE by Yael Farber, set in contemporary South Africa, even the Neil LaBute American version, one is captured by the reflection of the complexities of those cultures using the framework and interests of the original play. Just what the rest of the world might read from the pre-occupation of Mr Stone and Ms Caeres of the state of the Australian culture, psyche, as represented by this new play, and production, is of tantalising interest to me.

P.S. I wished the slow naturalism of the original had been really extended further by Ms Caceres, and I certainly loved the work of the Sound Designer, The Sweats.