Photo from Royal Exchange Flickr page – click picture for slideshow
We went to see the Royal exchange’s production of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”, a new translation by the playwright David Eldridge, on Tuesday. It was coming towards the end of its run but it had had some very good reviews so we wanted to catch it before it finished. We hadn’t been to the theatre for a while, so it was a good treat.
The plot is summed up on the Royal Exchange’s website
Sweden, 1894. Midsummer night’s celebrations are in full swing but the Count’s daughter, the beautiful and imperious Miss Julie, feels trapped and alone. Downstairs in the servants’ kitchen, handsome and rebellious footman Jean is feeling restless. When they meet a passion is ignited that soon spirals out of control. Strindberg’s masterpiece caused a scandal when first produced – and has been hugely popular ever since – for its searingly honest portrait of the class system and human sexuality.
There’s been a revival in interest in “upstairs, downstairs” dram on the TV with two series of Downton Abbey and a revival of Upstairs Downstairs on the BBC. Although these series have been very popular I’ve found them unrealistic. Although I enjoyed much of the first series of Downton, mainly due to the excellent acting, I thought the storylines started to get rather silly towards the end of it’s run and never bothered watching the second series.
Miss Julie paints quite a different picture of relationships between the classes and sexes in 19th Century Sweden. At the beginning Miss Julie very much has the upper hand as would be expected. She’s the aristocrat and Jean is a household servant. Of course, this is a reversal of the usual relationship between the sexes in that period, where the woman is subservient to the man. Class trumps sex. However, very quickly the tables are turned and by the end of the play the servant is very much in control. From a socialist perspective the situation is ambiguous though. It’s good to see the worker on top, but, on the other hand, the man’s treatment and subsequent domination of the woman is disconcerting to say the least.
The play is, effectively, a three hander. There are three roles – Miss Julie, played by Maxine Peake, Jean, the valet and his fiancé, the cook, Kristen. There was no interval and the two main actors were on stage for almost all of the 100 minutes duration. They must have been exhausted by the end, particularly given the very intense nature of the play.
All three actors were very good. And I thought Maxine Peake was magnificent. She really got across the character. Dominant at the beginning, broken, confused and subservient by the end. And I’d have to agree with Jean’s comment early in the play – Miss Julie was a very handsome woman.