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Miss Julie: A Love Story

May 1, 2009

August Strindberg's Miss Julie has always seemed like a dour play about class divide to me. The master-servant power games have dominated productions I've seen in the past. As a result, the play has generally felt old-fashioned. While the class system still exists to some degree in Europe and the US, it's just not as big an issue as it once was.

Last night, though, I experienced a production of the play at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre which made me see the play in an entirely new light -- as a love story.

Director Mark Jackson's fluid production starring Mark Anderson Phillips as Jean and Lauren Grace and Julie feels very human and entirely modern, even though the characters are dressed in stilted Victorian-era garb and perform around Giulio Cesare Perrone's antique kitchen set complete with huge wooden table and prominently-displayed meat cleaver.

Part of the reason for this feeling of freshness stems from Jackson's judicious use of Helen Cooper's translation of Strindberg, which bumps and grinds along in the fashion of a midsummer night romp of yore while never sounding heavy and overwrought in the actors' mouths.

Another reason for the play's modernity is the focus on the love story. Jackson levels the playing field between the two central characters by giving them similar accents which makes their attraction and eventual coupling seem all the more plausible. This is the first time I've seen Jean played with such an upscale British accent, rather than with a "regional" accent more commonly associated with servant roles on stage. At first, I thought it was odd -- misplaced even. But then I realized that Jean could well have learned to speak like his masters. After all, he's studied and scrutinized their ways throughout his life.

Though Phillips is given on occasion to overacting and the blocking from moment to moment feels jerky in places, the chemistry between Phillips and Grace is definitely on: It feels as fragile and dangerous as the fine line that divides Jean and Julie from transcending their place in the order of the universe.

In the first half, the characters' flirtations play off the master-servant roles in a sexually-charged way. Grace is very much the dominatrix in this part of the drama and Jean, her gimp. Things get particularly interesting -- and extremely real -- in the second half of the play, when the roles reverse. The extremes that the characters feel for one another -- the warmth, the dependence and the rage and guilt that stem from being connected through sex -- capture what it is to be in a complex relationship with someone you love. Emotions run high and no feeling is ever one thing; it is many things at the same time.

The brilliance of Jackson's production is that he makes Jean and Julie's relationship appear at the same time very new and full of promise and very old and bound for death. The latter, of course, wins out. But Jackson never loses sight of the newness of the passion between Jean and Julie, which is what provides the tension in the play and makes a rollercoaster love story out of grumpy, post-coital malaise.

The Guardian's Michael Billington was absolutely right when he compared the work of Strindberg and Ibsen in this way: "If Ibsen caught the tensions of the night before, Strindberg revealed the acrid taste of the morning after."

6 Comments:

  • I just saw this play last night, and I must say that it did not disappoint.

    I found the relationship between Christine and Jean to be very surprising, and her lines always turned out to be revelations of what was going on. Though the concentration on class was the predominant theme in this piece, the insight on love made it very enjoyable.

    For me, the whole play seemed to be a game about who loved who, temptation, and how to escape from it.

    Julie was the only character with any genuine emotions, while Jean was playing the game, and wanting to rise up the rank, and Christine just wanted Jean to cut it out and realize that they're going to have a family.

    Overall it was one of the best pieces I've seen at Aurora.

    By Blogger Christina Novakov-Ritchey, At May 13, 2009 at 9:20 PM  

  • thanks for your insights, Christina. I agree with what you say in general, though I have to disagree with your view of Jean. the character is often portrayed in an entirely calculating manner. but in this case, i think that it's clear the actually loves Julie.
    best
    chloe

    By Blogger Chloe, At May 13, 2009 at 9:28 PM  

  • First time seeing Miss Julie for me so I don't have another interpretation to compare with. I was surprised at the subtlety of the dialogue, loved the musicality of the direction (the rhythm of speech and silence must be Jackson's) and thought the acting was terrific all around. Mark Phillips is a Bay Area treasure. I thought his accent made perfect sense and was grateful you had pointed it out. I can see why Christina thought Jean was just wanting to rise up the rank - he tells several stories and says he made up the one about being in love with her as a child. Phillips doesn't telegraph which one is the lie but I agree with you that he was in love with her. The gender, sex and class issues were so antiquated, though. It was really hard to relate to Christine's dilemma and a tribute to the production that the ending was still shocking. The only thing I didn't like was the lighting design, which bothered me several times by shifting for no obvious reason or by seeming too obvious and metaphorical, as though the lighting was from Strindberg's symbolist period.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 19, 2009 at 9:40 PM  

  • Tom
    Thanks for your thoughts
    I agree with what you say about the lighting. A bit too distracting and over-the-top. I'm terrible in general about talking about lighting -- it's an area of dramatic performance that I rarely do justice to in writing. But now that you mention it, I often find the lighting to be a weak spot in Jackson's productions. What he did with Machinal worked well, but the Macbeth lighting was as busy as the lighting in Miss Julie. Didn't add to the experience.
    C

    By Blogger Chloe, At May 20, 2009 at 8:57 AM  

  • I don't remember a problem with the lighting in Macbeth, but the lighting in Don Juan was great. Go to Art Street's web site, click on Mark, then the photos of Don Juan. Look at the one labelled "In a graveyard late one night, Don Juan (Thu Tran) nervously approaches the statue of the commander (Jake Rodriguez) whom he once killed." I remember the lighting shifting behind Rodriguez to cast an enormous shadow. Then go to http://www.russianavantgard.com/Artists/benois/benois_frontispiece_bronze_horseman.html It's a pen and ink drawing for a Pushkin book done in 1905 with the identical effect. When I complimented his cleverness, Mark claimed to be unaware of the drawing, despite using Pushkin as a source for the script and him being so into Meyerhold and the Russians, and then he beggared belief when he said he had nothing to do with the set design despite all the fun Meyerholdesque faded-commedia and constructivist references. Does he always defer credit for brilliance?

    By Blogger Tom, At May 21, 2009 at 4:27 PM  

  • yes, i think you mentioned this drawing once before, tom. it's an interesting parallel and it certainly enriched your experience of the piece even if the director didn't intend it :)

    By Blogger Chloe, At May 21, 2009 at 4:45 PM  

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