A messy, biting examination of gender, rebellion, and class, Miss Julie is arguably one of August Strindberg’s most compelling works. With their latest season, the Melbourne Theatre Company have taken this frisson-filled Mid-Summers eve, and made it into a multimedia exercise that just doesn’t quite satisfy.
Set in the kitchen of her father’s Manor house, Miss Julie unfolds across one balmy evening, and into the stale dawn of the next day. It explores the sexual and social relationship of its upper class namesake with her father’s valet, Jean. Both watched on the periphery by his “fiancé’” Kristin, who is also the house cook. Julie and Jean flirt, play, consummate, and emotionally shred each other, all the while continually aware of having to eventually navigate what that means for them on a grander scale. They basically work their way through the five recognised stages of grief after their dalliance, and they drag the audience along with them for kicks. It has the makings of a riveting ride.
This MTC offering by director Kip Williams has some strong elements to it. The performances by Mark Winter as Jean and Robin McLeavy as Miss Julie are refined and engaging, and Zahra Newman’s work as Kristin creates a perfect balance to the ensemble. The musical score for the production by The Sweats is a definite highlight. In fact, the whole design for the piece is quite beautiful, with set and costumes by Alice Babidge marrying perfectly to the sound, and Paul Jackson’s lighting.
There’s a “Big Brother is watching” theme to the design, with the inclusion of glass walls, big screen, and cameras trained on every move of the housemates. It’s a statement that’s hard to miss. It makes for intimate viewing at times, but ended up being the least successful part of the experience. The problem with this kind of split focus for the audience is that volatile, high stakes moments are divided between stage and screen, and it muddies the impact. You’re asked to watch faces here and live action there and all the while a key moment has slipped away, and it’s taken any dramatical impact with it.
When the actors were couched in the recesses of the stage with the camera squarely trained on them it worked… to a degree. Yet with the audience separate to the intimacy of the live action, watching it on a big screen, you couldn’t help feeling somewhat robbed of what makes live theatre so electric. Touted as being a “seductive modern classic”, select moments of filming made it feel a bit midday movie meets MTC.
In the end, all the elements of the show on their own were of a high calibre, but they didn’t work seamlessly together to create a compelling piece of theatre. What they did offer was a unique telling of the story that, disappointingly, fell somewhat flat.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by August Strindberg | from a literal translation by Ninna Tersman | adapted by Kip Williams
Director Kip Williams
Venue: Southbank Theatre – The Sumner
Dates: 16 April – 21 May 2016