Adapting classic scripts for a modern audience can be fraught with danger. Some feel that untouched, traditional treatments are the only way to respect the work; others want to see complete modernisations, reframing the plot in a contemporary setting for example. In Director Kip Williams’ compelling adaptation of August Strindberg’s paradigm of naturalism in theatre, Miss Julie, the balance between cutting-edge update and respectful homage are beautifully measured.
This Swedish play circa 1888, is set in the kitchen of a Count’s manor on midsummer’s eve. His daughter, the Miss Julie of the title (Robin McLeavy), is engrossed by her father’s valet Jean (Mark Leonard Winter), who is in turn engaged to cook and ladies’ maid Kristin (Zahra Newman). Miss Julie exercises her power over the two servants with demeaning requests and mocking asides, but when Kristin retires to bed, Julie and Jean find themselves rapidly falling in volatile rapture with one another. A love/hate relationship has clearly been bubbling under the surface between the pair for some time and on this fateful night, it will come to a disturbing end.
Kip Williams (current Resident Director at the Sydney Theatre Company) has engaged his Set Designer, Alice Babidge to embellish upon her STC set concept for the similarly themed The Maids. Just as with that production, Babidge places the main setting (a kitchen, with an impressive working hob) inside a glass box at the centre of the stage and surrounds it with cameras on all three sides and from above, hanging a screen projecting images from those cameras over the space. This time however, the dark, black cavernous space at the back of the stage also becomes part of the playing area, as Miss Julie and Jean cavort outdoors and sneak into Kristin’s bedroom as she sleeps, all the while being followed by a cameraperson with a light ring piercing the darkness. It’s an utterly fascinating approach by Williams and Babidge, and the joint use of this manned camera with automated tracking from the other three tripod-set cameras allows for all sorts of angles and close-ups to become a combined impression for the audience as they enjoy the luxury of choosing which view to absorb at any given moment. Peeping around counters and through doors it offers the feeling of a Vermeer painting, peering into the private, everyday lives of servants going about their day.
These hitherto unseen viewpoints and nuances that the cameras can pick up allow the actors to bring added detail and finesse to their performances that otherwise would be missed. Zahra Newman as Kristin makes particularly good use of these opportunities, often playing towards the upstage cameras while still giving a feeling of playing front. Newman portrays housemaid Kristin with thoroughly gripping tension and is given a conclusion in Willams’ adaptation that allows her to bring more depth to this second fiddle character, but which isn’t actually a part of Strindberg’s original plot.
Babidge is also costume designer and her gorgeous midsummer’s dress for Miss Julie feels so ethereal it’s like she’s stepped straight out of an Edward Robert Hughes painting. Combined with Robin McLeavy’s porcelain appearance, Miss Julie is a picture of health and privilege. McLeavy embodies Julie with rambunctious petulance and unpredictability, making her a frightening, yet exciting paramour for the ambitious Jean. It’s only the swiftly oscillating nature of the pair’s on-again/off-again romance that makes this relationship difficult to reconcile at times, otherwise McLeavy’s Julie and Mark Leonard Winter’s Jean have authentic sexual chemistry. Winter makes Jean’s motivations feel convincing despite the erratic nature of his behaviour, so much so that it’s hard to decide which way you’d rather see his character go. Caring, yet passionate; thoughtful, yet impulsive, Winter’s interpretation of Jean demonstrates great depth of performance.
THE SWEATS have been composing superlative scores for MTC productions for some time now, but their sound design here hits new heights in bringing a cinematic quality to the stage with a soundtrack that intensifies dramatic tension and highlights emotional crescendos. Lighting design by Paul Jackson plays beautifully with Babidge’s defined spaces to create a triumvirate of outstanding technical achievement.
Those with purist tendencies when it comes to classical plays may find this production fiddles around too much with the naturalistic tenets of Strindberg’s work, especially if contemporary, blue language is of a concern, but otherwise lovers of theatrical masterpieces are highly recommended to this production. Even more so, those with an interest in new techniques in stage presentation. On that front alone, this is a work of great regard. Together all the elements on display make for a thoroughly enthralling night at the theatre.