Just as Julie’s titular character accuses the man she has just slept with of ‘fucking me for my money’, she outlines a key element of Carrie Cracknell’s re-imagining of Strindberg’s Miss Julie: that sex cannot do away with society. In this National Theatre production, Vanessa Kirby is arresting as the immoral, troubled and intoxicated Julie, who we follow through her descent into tragedy.
The play surrounds Julie on the night of her birthday party, under the influence of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. The opening scenes depict a seemingly affectionate relationship between the maid, Kristina, and the driver, Jean, of Julie’s family home, with a backdrop of Julie dancing with strangers under bright, strobing lights. However, this soon contorts into a rupturing, chaotic affair between Julie and Jean. What is most striking at first is the design itself; the huge rectangular stage, almost like a multi-dimensional film screen and filled with vibrant lights, completely envelops you into the setting. It successfully captures the strangeness of a night gone on too long. What is most interesting is the use of space across this huge stage, which appears unable to be filled. As Julie appears more and more as a person who feels lonely and empty, Jean ascribing her to be ‘shapeless’, the vastness of the space becomes more prominent. The off-white colouring of the kitchen filled only slightly by a huge rectangular table-which becomes an obstacle between characters- successfully reinforces the play’s key themes of loss, emptiness and isolation.
The staging also mimics characters crumbling into catastrophe. The backdrop to the steady, controlled relationship between Jean and Kristina is pristine- the surfaces are clean, the walls are white, and even the slight disarray of Julie’s dancing at the back of the stage does not seem to impose on this spotlessness. However, as we witness Julie and Jean tearing this world and themselves apart, and as we learn of her memories of her mother’s suicide, both stage and Julie become covered in grime. Food is smeared across the counter, bottles and glasses are littered everywhere, and Julie has replaced her sparkling jacket for a dull, oversized hoodie. She is covered in blood as a consequence of blending her pet bird. When Kristina (played brilliantly by Thalissa Teixeira) discovers the affair, her first words are ‘you’ve made a mess, haven’t you’.
What is most memorable is the dynamic between Julie and Jean, played by Eric Kofi Abrefa. The push-pull connection, both in language and movement, is striking as it explores their inability to separate sex and class. The final words of dialogue spoken by both are rife with euphemisms, consistently calling back to what the other person has previously said; at different points they both finish sentences with the word ‘loose’ and allow it to linger. They simultaneously cannot be close enough and further apart, the energy from both actors astonishing as they constantly alternate between pushing each other away and grabbing each other by the hands, hips and genitals. But while they fantasise about running away together, Jean is quick to admit that it is ‘unrealistic’. The physical dynamic is therefore reinforced with an aggressive discussion of rank as sex becomes a type of power. When this is fully realised and Julie needs to take back control, she tells him to ‘stand up when I speak to you’, but Jean informs her that ‘we can both pull rank’ by threatening to sell the story of her drug abuse to the papers.
The majority of the play focuses on this tumultuous relationship, and both Kirby and Abrefa strongly sustain the momentum. Kirby’s voice acting is particularly impressive, as she ranges from screams to hurried, quiet statements in a matter of seconds. While watching a recorded version does allow for a close-up of facial expressions more so than the usual theatre seat would provide, her body language is just as fast-paced and adaptable. This is clear through how she narrates Julie’s decline not just with her dialogue but with her body: a character who, at the beginning, takes up as much space as she is able, she ends the play laying with knee to chest in the corner as she takes her own life. But despite Kirby being the undoubtable star of the show, Abrefa is similarly remarkable. His intonation is at times jarring and less natural than Kirby’s, but his physical performance is hard to look away from as his movements mimic his character’s frustration with his social standing in comparison to Julie’s.
The play then situates the class dynamic in a discussion about choices. The affair between Julie and Jean first appears to be an uncontrollable succumbing to desire, but this is questioned when Kristina walks in on them. In a monologue delivered brilliantly by Teixeira, who had the potential to leave the biggest impact had she had more time on stage- she outlines the choice Julie has made: ‘you’ve turned the light on when we’ve both agreed to sometimes have it off’. Here, Kristina makes clear that the mimicry of friendship between herself and her employer has been utterly undone.
All in all, Cracknell’s production raises familiar questions about sex and class not so much in completely new ways, but in a fashion that is alarming and thought-provoking. Most significantly, the stage design and the alarming, brilliant performances from this small cast produce a performance which cannot be forgotten too easily.