A smartly updated classic looks at the privileged angst of a politician's daughter.
Director Leticia Cáceras writes that when Belvoir approached her to direct a version of August Strindberg's Miss Julie, she was in two minds: "As a director I was thrilled, as a feminist I was not so sure." Strindberg, often credited as the father of naturalism, had a misogynistic bent to his plays, and his Miss Julie, for all its good qualities, does seem to punish its main character for daring to being sexual.
Not so in the hands of Cáceras and writer Simon Stone, and their changes in this regard are a blessed relief. Too often we see classics contemporised in setting, costume or language but are supposed to accept their weird plot points about a woman's purity untouched. If only the approach here was the standard.
That said, 'Miss Julie' (Taylor Ferguson), does not escape lightly; she is subject to the many pressures our society puts on women. As the 16-year-old daughter (revised down from 25) of a prominent politician, every sext, flirt and short skirt is under scrutiny. But she also thinks she's found a new power: to make her father's security guard, Jean (Brendan Cowell), stare at her rather intensely. This circumstance shoots through the first act of the play, a mansion-set domestic drama in which the ingenue and employee spar, converse, eat a pizza and then, awkwardly, kiss. In the second act, their relationship gets rather more destructive.
The enduring appeal of this play is that as well as being rich with sexual tension, it's a potent exploration of how class, gender and generation shape people and their interactions with others. Jean, a 30-something former sommelier, harbours admiration for the elite classes he works for. Julie, meanwhile, fetishises a more 'authentic' life with room to err and fail and be in danger. In drawing their ages even further apart, Stone is pushing the boundaries of our comfort, and it's a welcome addition. The power exercised between the pair is complex, but we're never in doubt about who is responsible.
Perhaps this Miss Julie doesn't quite live up to its promise. It was exciting to see what would happen when Stone (Thyestes, Death of a Salesman), one of the most talked-about theatre makers of the moment and known for developing his works in the rehearsal room, wrote a traditional, printed-on-paper script and handed it over to Cáceras, whose chilling The Dark Room was one of the standouts of 2012. Their finished piece is spirited, smart and involving — it's well written and well directed — but it doesn't make a searing impression.
Props must go to the formidable lead actors, who are not only convincing but seem to have a rare level of comfort in their roles. Blazey Best, as Julie's housekeeper and Jean's fiance, Christine, also stuns in her limited time on stage. With the high-contrast sound design of The Sweats (Pete Goodwin) rising, the final, tragic tableau is a poignant sight.
Published on September 14, 2012 by Rima Sabina Aouf