Julie at the National Theatre: a ‘colourful and undefinable’ female lead
Adapting Strindberg’s Miss Julie, this modernised retelling from Polly Stenham has a stylish polish. Anthony Walker-Cook considers the play’s set and demanding performance from Vanessa Kirby.
With strobe lights and a pulsating beat, this new production of Julie at the National Theatre opens with a chaotic rave that is probably not too dissimilar to certain house parties that readers of London Student can foggily remember. Taking August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and modernising it, writer Polly Stenham has brought the play’s love between a woman and her servant into the twenty-first century. Under Carrie Cracknell’s direction this youthful Julie sparkles with emotion and wit with a commanding performance from Vanessa Kirby in the title role.
Whilst the party goes on, Julie opens on Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) cleaning the kitchen. Tom Scutt’s expansive set is split in two, neatly filling the Lyttleton stage with a sleek kitchen in the front and, behind a partition, an open space where the party happens. On both the left and right are sinks full of dirty glasses and half-full bottles of alcohol whilst there are an unnatural number of dishwasher units slotted into the cupboards. A pink balloon floats in the top-left corner whilst in the centre stands a large marble table. Throughout the first half of the production the party can be heard continuing behind the partition and the partygoers sometimes coyly enter the kitchen, often with a partner, only to promptly scurry out. The expansive space behind the partition is left fairly sparse, with only a few speakers and a foam mat used for a manner of different activities. A tall ladder goes up to what is assumed to be a window, but through which characters never leave. The overall effect of Scutt’s design is a feeling of Spartan opulence: the lights in the ceiling emphasise the clean white edges of the counters, though as the evening goes on marks appear and rubbish accumulates on the floor.
Leading the production is the sensational Vanessa Kirby as Julie. At first a passive bystander in the party, Julie soon dances with partygoers before moving into the kitchen. Wearing a sparkling aqua jacket with large circles reminiscent of peacock feathers, the overall effect is a woman on display and, as when peacocks fan out their plumage, she is trying to find a mate. We learn from Kristina and Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) that Julie has just been abandoned by her fiancé and her father has not appeared at her birthday party. ‘She’s always been… Technicolor,’ Kristina posits but here she seems different. Kirby’s performance is constantly balancing opposites: she can be both powerful and weak whilst also suggesting she is in control but also losing her grip. With a deadpan tone and humour she deconstructs philosophical sayings such as ‘It’s all a construct’ but until the end she remains an object for our pity. Against the bare kitchen she remains, as suggested by Kristina, a colourful and undefinable figure.
Teixeira brings a worldly atmosphere to her character, and it is a shame we do not see more of Kristina. Abrefa’s Jean is meant to be Kristina’s fiancé but soon finds himself caught by Julie, whose father is Jean’s employee. Like Kirby’s Julie, Abrefa ensures Jean is never a simple character and whilst his actions may seem planned – such as sleeping with Julie for her money – we are never sure if his own cold exterior is simply put on to match Julie’s inconstant and wandering loyalties.
Cracknell carefully uses Scutt’s set to mark these tonal transitions across the characters. Soon after the partygoers leave, Julie and Jean head up-stage to consummate what the latter implies has been a long-term infatuation. After, Julie comes down wearing a monochrome jumper, a plain choice given the eclectic clothing before. Stepping back into the kitchen, the two consider running away together to the Cape Verde and setting up a little restaurant. The partition at first remains open but closes very slowly as the vision soon fades and the two argue, forming a physical barrier to that potential domestic bliss. Guy Hoare’s lighting is also effective, brightening to a near-clinical whiteness or offering a soft pairing of blue and pink as Julie and Jean verbally spar.
This new production of Julie combines a highly modern, stylish production with enticing performances. The change in title from Strindberg’s original Miss Julie to Stenham’s Julie perfectly captures this sharp adaptation by removing the antiquated politeness in the formation of a modern woman. It is almost ironic that Julie is sharing the Lyttleton stage with Absolute Hell in rep and that Translations is being performed in the Olivier Theatre above: both have characters stuck in the past, whilst in the titular Julie audiences can see a woman living for the present, hoping to forget her past and with little consideration of the future. As evening slowly becomes morning, Julie declares ‘We’re awake, let’s be awake’ to Jean: this is certainly one party audiences will remember.
Julie is playing at the Lyttleton stage in rep until the 8th September 2018. On the 6th September it will be screened to cinemas worldwide as part of National Theatre Live.