Monday, 25 April 2016

Miss Julie, April 21, 2016 **1/2

By August Strindberg, adapted by Kip Williams from a translation by Ninna Tersman
By Melbourne Theatre Company
MTC Southbank Theatre, Sumner, until May 21, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 21, 2016
Stars: **1/2
Review also in Herald Sun Arts in print on Monday 25 April, 2016 and online by Tues 26 April.KH
 Mark Leonard Winter, Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby

There are myriad challenges in updating August Strindberg’s late 19th century Scandinavian play, Miss Julie, with its central issues of lust between social classes and misogyny.

Strindberg wrote his play in the ‘naturalistic’ style, set it in a single location – the kitchen of Miss Julie’s (Robin McLeavy) aristocratic father’s estate – and focused on the truthful depiction of the scandalous relationship between the privileged Miss Julie and Jean (Mark Leonard Winter), her father’s manservant.

Kip Williams’ adventurous adaptation retains the kitchen setting, the naturalistic acting and the forbidden relationship between Miss Julie and Jean, but it uses contemporary language peppered with expletives and reduces the complexity of the characters’ psychology.

Unfortunately, this production favours form over content and, although the simultaneous, live projection of a filmed version of the onstage action is a compelling visual device, the enormous, overhead screen is a distraction.

Initially, the film is a novelty but it becomes an annoyance that draws the eye away from the live performance or even replaces it when characters go so far upstage that we are forced to look at the screen.

These huge, on-screen personae dwarf their live counterparts below and, because the actors must perform to multiple cameras outside the glass-walled kitchen (designer Alice Babidge), they are mostly in profile or facing upstage; back-acting can be interesting, but not for 100 minutes.

While the film focuses on the minutiae of the actors’ performances, echoing Strindberg’s desire for naturalism, it fails to illuminate story, characters and relationships or provide a further dimension to our understanding of the action.

In 1888 Sweden, Miss Julie’s elevated social position would make her fall from grace shattering, but removing the yawning social status gap between her and Jean eliminates the risk and shame that should drive her to flee her home or consider suicide.

Their now peculiarly modern relationship lacks credibility and also the devastating intimacy that should evolve over their passionate, perilous, Midsummer night flirtation.

 Mark Leonard Winter, Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby
Winter’s portrayal of Jean misses the subtle balance of arrogant, ambitious upstart and cruel peasant, lacks the raw masculine power of the working class that attracts Julie, and relies on shouting to express his cruelty and self-absorption.

McLeavy’s Miss Julie combines a dizzy, flirtatious, contemporary party girl with the naive girlishness and entitled power play of an aristocrat.

Drunkenness increases Miss Julie’s volatility and blurs her boundaries and the escalating conflict between the lovers is epitomised in Jean’s comment that they will “torment each other to death”.

Although Williams dilutes Miss Julie’s hysteria, McLeavy expresses her vulnerable, unbalanced and deluded personality, but Miss Julie’s devolution into desperate suicidal action does not ring true in this contemporary portrayal.

Zahra Newman brings depth and truth to Kristin, Jean’s beleaguered, religious serving-maid ‘fiancĂ©e’, and the character provides an objective view on the doomed relationship and grounds the scenes in which she features.

This production is an inventive, modern interpretation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie but it sacrifices dramatic truth and complexity for technical innovation.

By Kate Herbert 
  Mark Leonard Winter, Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby
 Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby

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