Theatre Review: JULIE – National Theatre, London

Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean in Julie. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean in JULIE. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Polly Stenham’s modern adaption of August Strindberg’s 1888 masterpiece delivers some brilliantly surreal moments but ultimately fails to generate the sexual tension it needs

130 years after it was created, August Strindberg’s existentialist masterpiece MISS JULIE has been reimagined by Playwright Polly Stenham in a new production for the National Theatre.

Wild and newly single, Julie as she throws a late night party in her dad’s townhouse. In the kitchen below, Brazilian maid Kristina and her fiancé Jean (the family chauffeur) clean up as the celebration heaves above them. Drunk, high and desperately lonely, the coke-snorting Julie soon comes downstairs and demands a dance with Jean, initiating a power game between the pair that soon careers out of control.

Dropping the prim “Miss” from the title, Stenham’s version shifts Strindberg’s explosive 1888 play from nineteenth-century Sweden to contemporary London. Here, Julie is a 33-year-old daughter of a rich tycoon having a wild birthday bash in her father’s mansion off Hampstead Heath and the playwright relies on new elements to bring relevance to Strindberg’s themes. Class struggles are substituted for money and race is added into the mix as first-generation economic migrants work below in the kitchen.

On first glance, Carrie Cracknell’s production has a strong look with Tom Scutt’s clever split-level set design certainly looking the part as the party raves above and the employees work below. Shame then that the coldness of set ends up working against the actors’ efforts to generate fire and passion.

The biggest problem with this adaption is that it ultimately fails to generate the queasy mix of contempt and desire that fuels Julie and Jean’s sexual game. The passion between Julie and Jean should erupt spectacularly but there’s no spark here even though the two leads, in general, give very good performances. It is this lack of sexual tension that rather confuses the pallet, offering no real sense of danger even if the impulse to provoke is still there.

Fortunately, the acting is good. Vanessa Kirby is sensational as Julie, the posh lost soul paying the penalties of privilege and personal trauma. Floating around barefoot, her impulsive and careless nature gradually becomes more chaotic, destructive and desolate as the play develops, resulting in a performance that is vivid, painful and emotionally raw. Yet, while she is horrible to Jean and betrays Kristina, Stenham almost dares us to like her, inviting sympathy into the otherwise ugly part.

Eric Kofi Abrefa also delivers a strong performance as Jean although his lack of backstory means a lot of his scenes with Julie fail to take off. Some of his actions just don’t seem to ring true and as he consummates his infatuation with Julie, he is reduced to being nothing more than a financial opportunist rather than the complex, manipulative sadist of Strindberg’s original version.

That said, there is plenty to like here including some brilliantly surreal and gruesome moments. Strindberg’s heroine still feels painfully relevant and Kirby’s mesmerising performance stays with you long after this 90-minute play hurtles to its tragic end. Ultimately, this is a piece that pulls in polar directions and it isn’t a pleasant watch – but nor does it intend to be.

3 out of 5 stars

JULIE runs at the National Theatre, London until 8 September 2018.