Vanessa Kirby returns to her theatrical roots in this new adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie at the National Theatre. Adapted by Polly Stenham, this production brings the action to modern day London. Entitled, upper-class Julie, played by Kirby, invites a member of her staff, Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), for a dance at her raucous birthday party. Soon, their ensuing actions threaten to change both their lives forever.
Vanessa Kirby shines in the titular role, blurring the lines between condescending aristocrat and petulant child in swings of raucous spirit. From the offset, Kirby is impulsive, straying from safety to the borders of stereotype, while staying firmly on solid ground, ready to rein in the whining child at the click of a finger for a quiet moment of self-discovery. These swings, relentlessly fuelled by drugs and alcohol, give potential for a heavy-handed mess, but Kirby weaves her way through the script with agility, competently carrying the audience with her. Eric Kofi Abrefa supports well as Jean. Although his character lacks the textual depth and motivation granted to Kirby’s, Abrefa brings a genuine feeling of frantic dread to Jean, keeping a palpable tension throughout the ninety-ish minute running time.
“Kirby is impulsive, straying from safety to the borders of stereotype, while staying firmly on solid ground, ready to rein in the whining child at the click of a finger”
However, the production is lacking a focus. Claiming to link class, drugs and mental health, Julie promises relevance to current society in its sleek Hampstead Heath setting, but with the eponymous character presented as a stereotypical spoilt, posh girl it falls short. To truly construct a commentary linking class, drugs and mental health, we need a true insight into the inner thoughts of the suffering individual. However, Julie does more to demonstrate Julie’s outlandish, wild behaviour than her internal struggle. This isn’t helped by her constant intoxicated state, undercutting her moments of honesty with the question of whether she’s genuine, or simply drunk.
A bigger issue arises with the very notion of class. Strindberg’s Miss Julie is fuelled by the taboo of inter-class relationships, but set in modern day London, this taboo seems far less pressing. Breaking the conventions of class no longer feels like life-changing, reputation-destroying scandal, rather it feels slightly inconsequential. In fact, it almost feels encouraged or fairy tale-esque to be romantically involved with someone of a different class, need I mention the recent Royal Wedding? In this way, it’s hard to truly engage with the dilemma as Julie and Jean lament their forbidden love, where their modern London backdrop suggests it’s far from forbidden. Personal stakes are present, and Stenham does well to smooth over the cracks with sharp, pacey dialogue, but as the play reaches its melodramatic conclusion, it all feels like a bit of an overreaction.
“As the play reaches its melodramatic conclusion, it all feels like a bit of an overreaction”
But, what the production lacks in context, it makes up for with content. Stenham’s script intelligently weaves between comedy and drama whilst Tom Scutt’s design gives the production an evocative visual flair. The combination of Scutt’s design with Guy Hoare’s impressive lighting allow moments of gorgeous imagery on a vast scale, evoking open-mouthed awe in non-naturalistic physical sequences.
The result is an odd production. One which succeeds technically, with impressive design, acting and dialogue, but fails to raise the stakes contextually. It has all the ingredients of a stellar production, but fails to draw them all together in a cohesive context, leaving the final product feeling a little half-baked.
Julie runs at the National Theatre until 8th September, tickets available here.
Image: Richard H Smith