Saturday 8 August 2015

Theatre Review: Miss Julie, Theatre of Nations, Lincoln Center Festival, New York City Center, New York

August Strindberg’s 1888 naturalistic masterpiece is transported from Midsummer’s Eve in nineteenth-century Sweden, to New Year’s Eve in Putin’s Russia, in the Russian language adaptation of Miss Julie the Secret Victorianist attended last weekend.

Khamatova and Mironov in Miss Julie (Photo: Kirill Iosipenko)
The eponymous Count’s daughter is now only child of an army general, and her sparring partner, Jean, is transformed from valet to chauffeur, while the third member of this triangle – Christine – is still a cook, albeit in a glittering stainless steel kitchen.

Some elements of the setting work well. The class-based power play feels modern and doesn’t lose any of its impact, as, despite the changed context, some of the play’s concerns remain very true. Julie parades her wealth (changing outfits, slipping in and out of her towering shoes) and her dominion (ordering Jean to join her in karaoke for instance), while the servant characters still believably have more than enough leverage of their own – their intimate access to their employers’ lives, Jean’s higher level of sexual experience, and the more visceral nature of their existence. The production opens with video – Christine prepares a chicken for cooking, a bird’s eye camera giving us a detailed view of the process – and as the production continues, the camera at times comes to rest on Julie’s face, subjecting her to the same kind of scrutiny and usage.

Khamatova and Mironov in Miss Julie (Photo: Kirill Iosipenko)
Less successful is the presentation of the gender dynamics at work in Strindberg’s play. The total power shift towards the man which must come in the nineteenth century post-consummation, just doesn’t seem relevant here, and Julie’s reaction to losing her virginity seems disproportionate from a twenty-first century heiress, whose house is currently filled with gyrating and copulating ravers. Jean’s physical strength (he is even able to shut Julie in a freezer at one point in this production) becomes a proxy for the more complex workings of male privilege that were relevant in the 1800s, even when a woman was of a higher class than her lover.

Chulpan Khamatova, as Miss Julie, and Evgeny Mironov, as Jean, are well-matched in director Thomas Ostermeier’s production, and I always found myself drawn to watching them deliver their lines and react to each other, even when reading the English supertitles. The set too, worked well - the rotating mechanism and dividing screen allowing for some concealment and variation, even while maintaining the claustrophobic feeling of Strindberg’s original single setting.

Provocative in its time, Miss Julie is still thought-provoking, engrossing, and affecting, today. I’m not sure, due to Julie’s insufficient motives (described above), that this production ever quite attained tragic heights, but I’d still strongly recommend it.

Do you know any other nineteenth-century plays currently on stage in New York? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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