Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Miss Julie, Belvoir

August Strindberg was undoubtedly a misogynist - he's quoted as describing women as "half apes ... criminal, instinctively evil animals". But he also wrote one hell of a lead role for an actress in "Miss Julie" - a young woman feeling strong passion for a man who is socially below her, with lust and power combining in a brutal confrontation that has a suitably unpalatable ending.

It's a story that's been adapted before (most noticably Patrick Marber's "After Miss Julie", which gets a program-photo-shout-out), but this version twists it in some very contemporary ways. Most noticably, the rich young woman is both more closely attatched to power (her father's prime minister) and is only 16 - which may be the only way you can viably keep it viable that she'd still realistically be a virgin, but also brings in a whole lot of other complications, given her partner-in-lust is the 37-year old Brendan Cowell.

This isn't the only change made by Simon Stone's adaptation. He also plays with the structure (instead of Stringberg's single location, this is two separate acts - act one in a kitchen as the bored girl, basically playing with her sexuality, gets drawn further and further into a seduction that can't end well, act two in a hotel room as the reality of the limitations of this relationship become apparent) - as well as noticably altering the ending.

Director Leticia Caceres gives this a naturalistic sheen - there are a couple of production choices I'd question (the set's stark white look, the awkward noises in the sound design by "The Sweats" that over-dramatise moments that might better be silent, the placement of the actors often against the far back walls which makes the production less intimate than it might be, and means the best areas of the Upstairs theatre aren't in play as much as they might be), but the important thing is that the performances get central focus and are played strong and clear and true.

Taylor Ferguson's major stage debut is a wonder - she's able to swing from sexually curious teenager to naive in an instant, and projects Julie's deep intelligence, her naivety, her unthinking acceptance of her powerful status amongst her father's employees, and her ultimate desperate act. Teenage sexuality is a minefield, presenting it in art doubly so - but here, it's shown as curiosity, a desire for knowledge, largely unaware of any of the implications this has.

Brendan Cowell's Jean is the other key player in this - resistant, but unable to stop himself falling further and further. Cowell's essential Australian-ordinary-guy nature plays brilliantly here - we know he should be the adult here, and he should stop ... but we also see, early on, how much he is excited by the small trappings of the rich society he's an employee in (stealing just a bit of the smoked salmon risotto made for Miss Julie, drinking a little of the boss' wine) and the small temptation of touching just a little bit more of that world becomes more and more irresistible to him. And as the second act makes it clear just how far he is from being able to function in that world, his sullen resistance to the truth becomes both sadder and more dangerous.

Blazey Best is the third figure in this - Jean's fiance, and the cook - there to play against Cowell's rants about Julie early in the play, and to present the practical, realistic way out near the denouement. I've heard it argued elsewhere that, surely, no fiance would forgive this - and I think that's ignoring that, in fact, women cover up for men far more often than they should, for all level of despicable activity. Women still feel that obligation to clean up after, rather than, as would be wise, walk away. It's not the right moral behavior, but it is awfully, sadly realistic. And Christine pays part of the price for bringing realism into Julie's fantasy of escape.

This is strong, brutal drama, and ... it's not quite perfectly done (as noted, the set, sound design and some of the blocking irked me).  But there's a great deal of strength in this production that re-imagines a classic into a contemporary examination of sexuality, morality and the ways of power in relationships.

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