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."