14 June 2018
Julie (a play by Polly Stenham)
the National Theatre
reviewed by Adam McCormack
Star rating: ***
Poor little rich girl Julie is a deeply troubled soul. Tortured by the suicide of her mother, neglected by her extremely wealthy workaholic father and dumped by her boyfriend. With this amount of baggage it is not surprising that Julie is giving free rein to her drug and alcohol compulsions. It is her birthday and at a bacchanalian party at the family home (to which she has been forced to return) Julie is looking for a way out of her predicament. She sees an opportunity in the form of her father’s driver Jean. While Jean is in a relationship with the maid, Kristina, he is well educated and seeks more from life. He is besotted with Julie and when she makes advances he seems powerless to refuse. Kristina is also imprisoned by her circumstances, having to work to send home money to educate her young son. Three people, all of who see the others as potential escape routes – so who is manipulating whom?
This could be a tale from Hampstead, Knightsbridge or any uber-wealthy enclave of the UK. Young rich people with too much time and no direction, counterpointed by intelligent servants who are victims of the economic and class divide. However, this play is based on August Strindberg’s 1889 masterpiece, Miss Julie.
Writer Polly Stenham’s re-imagining of the work is highly effective on many levels. The power play between Julie and Jean is compelling and believable, as Jean seeks to get Julie to fund a move to set up a restaurant in Cape Verde. The wild party, with pulsating music and much stylised dancing, and an impressive seduction scene, allows the National to go to town once again on a brilliant set which adds an appeal to a younger audience. Vanessa Kirby is captivatingly perfect as Julie. Lithe, sybaritic, alternately seductive and dismissive, she perfectly encapsulates Julie’s descent into a self-destructive vortex. Similarities between this role and her performance as Princess Margaret in The Crown will not be lost on the audience, but she is an actress of true talent, who should be in no danger of being typecast. Eric Kofi Abrefa also excels as Jean, as he uses his physical attraction to try to advance his own cause.
There are, however, areas where the power of the original work may have been lost and which to some extent do not quite work. Strindberg’s Darwinian theme, where Julie and Jean are locked in a battle of the survival of the fittest does not come across – here the issue is more one of a wealth and class divide. The character of Kristina is also a little confused and ill defined, with a lack of clarity as to whether she really loves Jean or whether she too is using the relationship for her own ends. Such ambiguity may be an irrelevance, and the play perhaps should only be viewed in its own right rather than by comparison with its inspiration. In this sense it is an intriguing commentary on modern excess.