August Strindberg‘s Miss Julie has always been a controversial domestic drama. When written in 1888, it was deemed too shocking and theatres refused to stage it. An intense portrayal of a sexual encounter between a valet and his mistress, it is a provocative play with morally corrupt characters. Its unflinching realism and bitter scrutiny of the aristocratic class caused outrage at the time.
Nearly 150 years on, the blunt sexual honesty prevalent in Strindberg’s play isn’t likely to shock a modern audience, where sexuality is normalised. Nonetheless, it remains an intense, brutally captivating portrait of an immoral relationship fraught with danger.
The characters that inhabit Miss Julie are fascinating, having barely any moral scruples. They have few redeeming qualities, but Strindberg’s characters are equally captivating. There is something strangely alluring about morally corrupt characters. Watching this play isn’t a comfortable experience. It is like watching Game of Thrones, without the dragons or incest. You are torn between which character to favour, and who to sympathise with. Although the characters aren’t particularly likeable, they are strangely compelling.
Miss Julie (Alice Frankham) is impulsive and frivolous, an aristocrat playing a dangerous game by showing sexual favours to her valet, John (Danny Solomon). Bringing her reputation into disrepute, she experiences a dramatic fall from grace after a “drunken folly” with her servant. John is a working-class northerner who dreams of “climbing out of this class”. Initially, the audience can side with this heroic figure longing for advancement, resolutely fighting against the class that he resentfully serves. However, his true colours are slowly revealed, along with his sharp bitterness of the upper-class, wilfully destroying Miss Julie’s reputation before brutally rejecting her, leaving her honour ruined.
Miss Julie is dialogue heavy and dominated by scathing arguments between Miss Julie and John. It runs the risk of being melodramatic, as Miss Julie repeatedly flies into hysterics, comprehending the gravity of her actions. However, exceptional direction from Jake Murray brings the best out of the actors. They deliver sublime performances that perfectly render the realism that Strindberg’s play yearns for.
Alice Frankham brilliantly depicts her character’s flippant nature, beginning the play as a sexually flirtatious, lustful mistress who seduces her valet. She then deftly expresses her character’s turmoil, and anguish, appearing physically shaken at the destruction of her reputation, before exhibiting seething hatred towards the man who betrayed her. Although she orchestrated her own downfall, Frankham still manages to evoke some sympathy for Miss Julie, which is a testament to her skill as an actor.
Likewise, Miss Julie’s valet, John, has a fascinating character arc. Danny Solomon is magnificent, delivering a nuanced performance that paints his character as charming and detestable in equal measure. His voice inflected with an authentic northern accent, he is initially relatable as the working-class valet, who upholds his position with pride. This is brilliantly reflected in Solomon’s uptight, fixed posture, and meticulously precise mannerisms. When his true nature is revealed, and his charm dissolves, Solomon displays John’s vicious, bitter, and cruel nature. It is a transformation that is shocking but also captivating, rendering an abhorrent character who is equally compelling.
The two principle actors are joined by Lois Mackie, who plays John’s fiancée, Christine, another one of Miss Julie’s servants. Mackie capitalises on her limited time on stage, delivering a memorable performance as one of the only likeable characters in the play. There is also an lively servants’ drunken party scene that features an ensemble cast from Arden School of Theatre. They deserve credit for bringing much needed, light-hearted energy to an intense domestic drama.
The domestic realism of Strindberg’s play is also brilliantly presented in Louis Price‘s design. Gorgeous period costumes are matched by an exquisitely detailed set design. Exploiting Hope Mill Theatre’s intimate performance space, the action takes place in a kitchen. Period furniture is adorned with an abundance of authentic props, placing the play firmly in the Edwardian era.
Miss Julie is a compelling, tense drama with incredible acting. It is one of those plays that you have to let sink in. It brutally puts relationships, and class, under a magnifying glass, in the sun. It seethingly explores the depths of human nature and provides characters that get under your skin. They are immoral, cruel, yet utterly fascinating. This is not an enjoyable play to watch, but it is certainly worth it!