Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 30th April 2019
“Strindberg still has an incredible amount to say to modern audiences”
Having loved Creditors the previous night, I was very excited to experience Miss Julie – the most famous of August Strindberg’s plays – which is running on alternating nights at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Despite the trademark qualities of the writer being fully present, here they didn’t feel as tightly honed as in Creditors, resulting in a production that felt lost at times.
Originally written in 1888 and adapted by Howard Brenton based on a translation from Agnes Broomé, Miss Julie focuses on the relationship between the upper class titular character (Charlotte Hamblin) and her servant Jean (James Sheldon), as the pair use their status and seductiveness against each other in an ever shifting scuffle for power over one another. The play constructs an engaging commentary on the trappings of the class system at either end of the spectrum, and the ways in which love and sex can exist outside of that system, and it’s a credit to both Brenton and Strindberg that a lot of the arguments presented don’t feel stale, instead capturing a sense of modernity and relevance to the still-prevalent class oppression in our society.
However, other aspects of Miss Julie have not aged so well. The play was first conceived at a time when the likes of Ibsen and Chekhov had made naturalist theatre a new phenomenon, and so the play at times feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be the most naturalistic, at the expense of delivering a focused plot. Extended sequences in which Jean’s fiancée Kristin (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) cooks or waits for the other characters to return are dreary, and a huge detriment to the pace of the narrative. Additionally, after a blistering middle that is dripping with tension and psychological game-playing, the final section feels unsure of how to resolve its plot, and features the characters repeatedly threatening to do something then changing their mind. Consequently, when the actual resolution comes around, it fails to land with any weight as the audience had been conditioned not to trust the solutions the script presented.
These shortcomings are greatly atoned for with the performances, with mature and sensitive direction from Tom Littler. The fierce and flirtatious chemistry between Sheldon and Hamblin is tectonic as she toys with him, and the slow unveiling of his deeply embittered psyche is gripping. Hamblin’s performance later becomes a little over-wrought, as some speeches feel like they’re all being played at maximum distress at all times and as a result lack variety, but it provides an interesting contrast with Myer-Bennett’s grounded portrayal, and by and large the cast show a total mastery over the text, bringing humanity and idiosyncrasy to the forefront at every opportunity.
Miss Julie is in some ways very messy, and yet it was also hugely engrossing, which has made abundantly clear that even if it’s not being said in the most effective way, Strindberg still has an incredible amount to say to modern audiences.
Reviewed by Tom Francis
Photography by Robert Workman
Jermyn Street Theatre until 1st June
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: