“Don’t confuse my appetite”
It is turning out to be the year of the Julie for me: having already taken in one production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by the Faction theatre company, I have two others lined up with Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in a new version by David Eldridge and Juliette Binoche taking on Martin Crimp’s interpretation at the Barbican to look forward to. But second up was Patrick Marber’s take, After Miss Julie, at the Young Vic’s Maria studio. Marber relocates the three-hander to a Britain dealing with the Labour landslide victory of 1945 to startling effect.
In a world that can taste huge social change on the tip of its tongue, housekeeper Christine makes kidneys on toast for her (almost fiancé) chauffeur John as the rest of the staff party upstairs. He cheekily cracks open a bottle of the finest wine from the cellar and they gossip about the antics of the daughter of the house but when the self-same Miss Julie appears at the top of the stairs, Natalie Dormer in fierce flirtatious form, with her eye set on toying with Kieran Bew’s thoroughly masculine John, the scene is set for a torrid night of sex, gender politics and class warfare.
This is a deeply sexy play: the flirtations between mistress and servant are mighty convincingly played by Dormer and Bew and as they play their games, the upper hand continually shifts as each tries to sexually out-manoeuvre the other. But there’s so much more at stake here too: for all the intimations that change is around the corner, the post-coital haze of fantastical plans soon clears and the psychological conditioning that society has imposed upon this pair grimly reasserts itself. It is Polly Frame’s no-nonsense Christine, callously disregarded during the seduction, who emerges with the greatest strength and clear-sightedness, but at what price? In watching her purse-lippedness, John’s inability to deal with his desires in the face of commands from his master and Miss Julie’s disturbingly rapid mental unspooling, it is clear that everyone is damaged.
It moves along at a cracking pace and looks fantastic, but there was a detail that did annoy me. Having grown up in a house with an Aga, I was appalled to see Christine’s attempts at making toast. She did it on the wrong side, on the simmering plate which would never be hot enough to toast the bread, plus she only toasted one side which is no way to eat toast. That said, I loved Patrick Burnier’s design which from the moment we enter, ensures we know exactly where the play is set as we descend a long staircase into the ‘downstairs’ of this country pile. Having arrived late, we ended up sat on one of the little banks of seats on the side of the stage, which I’d actually recommend as what little is lost from the occasional front-on blocking is more than recompensed by the thrill of being so intimately close to the actors.
All in all, I thought After Miss Julie was pretty darn fantastic, the intimacy of the staging is matched by some very high-calibre acting. It also contains a brilliant piece of stagecraft in which of course no budgies are harmed and if you thought so for even a moment, you are a doofus. But it really is so cleverly done and in some ways, I don’t want to have the mystery revealed – just keep your eyes on the birdcage! And get booking for this, tickets are going quickly and you won’t want to miss it.