First published in The Times, Wednesday February 20 2019
Unlike those pesky, proverbial buses, productions of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie tend to come along with reassuring frequency. Since its premiere in 1889 the story of the aristocratic young Swedish woman fatally drawn to her father’s servant has reached far beyond its original setting and time frame.
Yaël Farber’s intense 2012 relocation of the play to post-apartheid South Africa was one of the most memorable Edinburgh International Festival productions of the past decade. Zinnie Harris’s 2006 adaptation, which transposes the action to the industrial unrest of Scotland in the 1920s, received a major revival at the Citizens Theatre a mere five years ago.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Opening in the studio at Perth and touring to modest spaces, this new production of Harris’s script, directed with precision and clarity by Shilpa T-Hyland, satisfies Strindberg’s instruction that his play needed “first and foremost a small stage and a small auditorium”.
The playwright knew what he was talking about. Being in such close proximity to these emotionally charged encounters makes for a distinctly intimate experience. The scrubbed kitchen setting, designed by Jen McGinley, feels almost hermetically sealed, like a bunker, with the lovers continually raising the prospect of flight but never getting further than the worktop or doorway.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The production is at its most powerful in the highly charged scene leading up to the seduction. The second half fallout is a little too reliant on black humour that only occasionally hits the nail on the head about the profound ambivalence of the characters. “We’ve told each other we love each other, that we hate each other,” John tells Julie. “We have done what it takes most couples 30 years to achieve.” Harris’s version gives the play an explicit political context, which, with its references to the General Strike and the prospect of social upheaval, is sometimes too much on the nose.
The actors find the required nuance. Hiftu Quasem is convincing in the title role, frequently imperious, but touching in the moments when she is least sure of herself. Lorn Macdonald, playing John, switches between boyish vulnerability and impertinence. Even at the moment of his maximum power over Julie, he can’t help standing to attention and placing a hand reverentially on his back as he slops wine into her glass. Helen Mackay is riveting as Christine, the cook, whose quiet power is derived from her seeming unwillingness to disrupt the system that keeps her on the lowest rung.