Tag Archives: August Strindberg

“Miss Julie” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Howard Brenton’s long engagement with the master playwright August Strindberg has proved thoughtful and fruitful, with results here that are spectacular. No stranger to controversy in his own plays, Brenton is almost contrarian in his respect for his predecessor. And presenting Strindberg’s tale of a mistress who has an affair with her father’s valet so simply, with no burdening concept or take on the text to push, is a mark of confidence in the original that allows it to both shine and shock.

The direction from Tom Littler is masterful. With some boldly slow pacing that enforces naturalism and an impressive attention to detail, the play is gripping from the start. We first see the aristocratic household’s cook, Kristin, about her chores and waiting on that valet, Jean, who is also her fiancé. Establishing character through mundane actions is one of those things they teach you are drama school isn’t it? But I’ve seldom seen it done with more success that Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s efforts here. Based on the smallest gestures, the character fascinates, carefully becoming a complex and ultimately triumphant figure. Myer-Bennett’s close study pays off marvellously.

Along the way, we have the drama of Jean’s one-night stand with Julie. It is to Brenton’s credit that both get equal focus, aiding the theme of class conflict that powers his version and reflects Strindberg’s troubled relationships with women. The performances from Charlotte Hamblin and James Sheldon are excellent as they take us through Strindberg’s “serious game” of seduction with such precision. Sheldon works magic with his mercurial character, hot with anger and coldly rational by turns. And Hamblin is a true star in the title role, building Miss Julie’s mental instability for the first half, then going all out to become frightening and pitiful in equal measure.

Let’s not forget the importance of sexual chemistry – this is an erotic show and, as a mark of how smoothly Littler handles the twisted kinks, little skin is on show. It is also testament to the exactitude of the production that Kristin and Jean are such a believable couple: the shared cigarette or help with a bow tie become captivating touches. Their relationship raises the stakes and makes Julie’s plans for escape all the more fantastical. The mix of misandry and self-loathing from our heroine becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the small, one-room world Littler brings to life. It’s always an effort for a modern audience to appreciate the shame of a ‘fallen’ woman, so Brenton’s skill lies in showing this a play about more than sexual politics. And his triumph comes in making Miss Julie’s actions seem radical and tragic once more.

Playing in repertory with Howard Brenton’s version of Creditors until 1 June 2019


“Julie” at the National Theatre

Polly Stenham’s new play, described as “after” August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, has just enough going for it. A bold authorial voice and strong performance from Vanessa Kirby in the title role compensate for flaws in a stylish script full of contemporary touches.

Strindberg’s play, about a love affair that defies class, has been adapted before, but this updating is particularly bold. The 1888 text has been stripped bare: it’s all about the money, as a poor little rich girl starts an affair with her daddy’s chauffeur, with tragic results.

Stenham’s skill is with dialogue, and the way Julie speaks is exemplary, instantly recognisable and witty. We’ve all heard Julie around town or worked with her (one summer I served her in Selfridges). We see how smart she is, how superficially appealing her “technicolour” personality might be, and the tragedy of her “shapeless” life.

Julie makes for an in-depth character study that Kirby embraces – her performance will keep you watching. But sympathy with the character isn’t allowed – any self-pity is a luxury. You may agree with Stenham, or wonder why she is so tough, or speculate on how her decisions relate to Strindberg’s infamous preface to his play. But the sentiment slims the play down and director Carrie Cracknell ends up padding it out with party scenes that look expensive but add little. Robbed of credibility, Julie’s relationships with her servants, fiancés whose romance she destroys, are too crass; there’s little drama and no sexual tension.

Both Eric Kofi Abrefa and Thalissa Teixeira do well in the roles of Julie’s employees, taking advantage of the depth Stenham gives their roles. But the characters are a little too noble, lacking edge or danger. Likewise, Kirby depicts Julie’s mental instability with intensity, but the character is a mess from the start, her end too predictable. The problem is a lack of nuance that makes the show, like Tom Scutt’s stylish set, rather too monochrome.

Until 8 September 2018


Photo by Richard H Smith

“dreamplay” at The Vaults

August Strindberg’s 1901 play is widely regarded as being impossible to stage. Of course, that’s never stopped people from trying. The latest effort comes from BAZ Productions, headed by director Sarah Bedi. Crammed with memorable snippets, this ambitious adaptation is free enough to pin down themes precisely. And if it’s deep and meaningful questions you like, these are packed in with forceful proficiency.

From the grunts and screams that open the show – with a character from heaven visiting Earth to observe mankind’s suffering – it’s obvious that audience members need an open mind. A committed cast (Colin Hurley, Michelle Luther, Jade Ogugua and Jack Wilkinson) are sure to win respect. Each of the disconnected scenes is entered at full pitch, slipping speedily into the surreal. It must be exhausting to perform. It’s pretty tough to watch.

There are fine touches here, including great work from Luther, whose movement is controlled by the playing of a cello, and a gorgeous scene of couples proposing marriage that really nails the fluidity of dreams. And a visit to a classroom (get ready to sing along) is the best of the production’s comic touches, sliding effectively into a claustrophobic nightmare. Unfortunately, each scene is just a little too long. Although dreams do, after all, recur, there’s a great deal of repetition. And while it makes sense to break down that fourth wall, the technique is overplayed.

It is sound that holds the show together. The music of super talented cellist Laura Moody, along with a variety of noises made by the cast (appropriate to situations, from the mundane to the supernatural), create an aural landscape that uses the venue perfectly. While expertise in the use of sound is the show’s triumph, navigating the promenade audience through the same space is its biggest failing. Even with an intimate 70-strong audience, too much time is taken moving between scenes, breaking the spell and waking you from the dream. This may be very practical criticism for a play that is so boldly abstract, but the impact is significant.

Until 1 October 2016


Photo by Cesare De Giglio

“Dances of Death” at the Gate Theatre

Watching the intricacies of close relationships has an extra charge in the wonderful intimacy of the Gate Theatre. Opening last night, Dances of Death, shows us a marriage long disintegrated into a conjugal competition that is sure to provoke any audience. Howard Brenton’s new version of Strindberg’s influential classic condenses two plays into one evening to create a riveting night of theatre.

At first it seems as if we’re in for a comedy, as Edgar and his wife of 30 years, Alice, bluntly admit their misery, and settle down to a squabbling card game that neither enjoys – they have other games to play of a more sinister kind. Forced to join them is Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft), whose crime of being matchmaker to the pair is something they have never forgiven him for.

Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe establish the main characters with skilful speed. Their continuing contest is convincing, despite obscure motivations and bizarre behaviour. Pennington is marvellous at the captain of a military camp on a remote island; an impressive fabulator, rolling his eyes in a drunken stupor, and a boorish bully with a mischievous edge. Best of all, his depiction of physical illness is superb. Marlowe has a harder task, with a more ambiguous character whose past as an actress gives the whole piece a theatrical air. The performance fits the role, but director Tom Littler shows a questionable bravery in allowing some hands-on-forehead histrionics.

Poor Kurt’s punishment continues into the second play. It’s here that the production is most successful. As Edgar and Alice’s child, performed with a knowing theatricality that makes her very much her mother’s daughter, Eleanor Wyld makes a believable temptress. The innocent “sheep” now is Kurt’s son (a moving performance from Edward Franklin) and as the constraints in their society start to reveal themselves more clearly through the young couple’s relationship, the play starts to matter to us more. Littler’s pacing is bold and James Perkins’ design utilises Strindberg’s paintings to great effect.

It’s still a struggle to really appreciate Edgar and Alice’s relationship – a final admission of affection seems dismissed. The most interesting relationship in Dances of Death is that between its authors – this new version sees two writers, both with very individual voices, somewhat at odds. Brenton’s muscular approach matches Strindberg’s radicalism in many ways and both are visionary artists (interestingly, like Strindberg, Brenton also paints), but Strindberg’s politics are not well served. The writers’ union, like the one on stage, seems uncomfortable, though never less than fascinating.

Until 6 July 2013


Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“Mies Julie” at the Riverside Studios

South African director and writer Yael Farber has brought her Mies Julie from Cape Town – via the Edinburgh Festival and considerable critical acclaim along the way – to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Farber’s wonderfully free adaptation of Strindberg’s drama of sex and class, the 1888 Miss Julie, adds the toxic politics of present day South Africa to create an explosive mix.

The majority of the adaptation is inspired. The action is set on a farm besieged by ‘squatters’ aiming to oust the white Boer owners, Miss Julie and her father. The homestead is staffed by John and his mother Christine, who has a mystical, ancestral bond with the land. The racist connotations of Julie’s decision to dance with and then sleep with John add to the intensity of Strindberg’s writing, which can baffle a modern audience. And yet while this potent layer of politics benefits the play by amplifying each character’s desires, it becomes monotone. Mixing the personal with the political fascinates, but Farber falters in successfully conducting what starts as an orchestral piece, unfortunately reducing it to a single note.

Yet the execution of Mies Julie is fantastic. Aided by a soundscape (created by Daniel and Matthew Pencer) that includes traditional music performed by Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa and Thoko Ntshinga, who also plays Christine, the play’s atmosphere is magnificently oppressive. Better still are the central performances from servant and mistress Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje: the chemistry between these two is electric, their balletic movements captivating amidst the show’s hysteria and gore. The games they play are deeply erotic and for the most part capable of carrying the portentous burden placed upon them. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Mantsai and Cronje as they travel to the play’s depressing, bloody conclusion.

Until 19 May 2013


Photo by William Burdett Coutts

Written 12 March 2013 for The London Magazine

“Mademoiselle Julie”at the Barbican

The Barbican offers Londoners yet another chance to see the very best of world theatre with French director Frédéric Fisbach’s bold new version of August Strindberg’s Mademoiselle Julie. Though written during its author’s naturalistic period, the production points to Strindberg’s later expressionist works and employs the conceit of updating the setting, if not the manners, of the story. The action starts with a wild celebration of Midsummer, with the mad mademoiselle defying convention to dance with the servants, to a pop music soundtrack, before bedding her father’s valet. Maybe I’ve been to too much theatre and too few parties, but this is a night like no other, with one guest dressed as an albino Wizbit and another wearing a bunny rabbit head.

There are some pretentious moments in Fisbach’s production but these can be forgiven for the French sophistication so palpably on offer. Artist Laurent P Berger’s set is a minimalist marvel (you can tell the guy has been hanging around white cubes), being part playground, part prison, with partitions to mirror the private and public power play Mademoiselle Julie is so full of. And Berger fully exploits the emotional potential of light and colour – no question that this show looks amazing.

The set is a work of art in its own right, but the draw for many will be superstar Juliette Binoche in the title role. She does not disappoint. Her Julie’s lust for life appeals but she really excels suggesting Julie’s thanatotic edge. In addition, Binoche enables Strindberg’s period details to retain their force – in both the shame and the erotic frisson that comes from a seduction between the social classes. As her lover, Nicolas Bouchaud does a superb job, suggesting his character’s complexity with a potential for violence that’s decidedly kinky – there’s boot licking and animal sacrifice, for heaven’s sake – but always riveting. I’m not sure about that rabbit though.

Until 29 September 2012


Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage Festival d’Avignon

Written 21 September 2012 for The London Magazine