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Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H. Smith

A Disturbingly Provocative Play

27 July 2018 Isobelle Smith

‘We can both pretend - that it’s all pretend’ says Kristina (played by Thalissa Teixeira) after she witnesses an act of complete betrayal between her fiancé and her employer’s daughter. She wants to forget, to be without heartbreak and to belong to the household again. But it’s too late, for everyone.It might seem surprising that Kristina, despite this comment, is one of the more stable characters in Carrie Cracknell’s new production of Julie at the National Theatre. Themes of hysteria are embraced in this candid and provocative adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888). The play is as thrilling as it is disturbing.

Polly Stenham, the writer of this contemporary adaptation, forsakes, if not rejects, Strindberg’s original style and removes all nineteenth century mystery in favour of a simple, raw Julie. The play follows the affair between the hedonistic daughter of a wealthy father, Julie (Vanessa Kirby) and the chauffeur Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), who also happens to be engaged to Kristina. Their indulgence has resounding consequences for all three members of the household, and most significantly for Julie’s fragile mental state.
 

Vanessa Kirby in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith
 

As we pass through a frame of artificial light, we enter the slick modern kitchen of a London mansion. The room is strangely uniform, and has an almost futuristic design that is entirely removed from Strindberg’s ‘shelves trimmed with fancy scalloped paper’. Above the kitchen, there is a party dominated by the beat of muffled techno. It is her 33rd birthday and Julie stands bewildered amongst the guests. She stumbles across the stage intoxicated, and makes the irreversible decision to enter the domestic territory of Kristina and Jean. Unaware of what is about to unfold, Kristina remarks how Julie ‘has always been technicolour’.
 
Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

Kirby – who this year received a BAFTA for her performance as Princess Margaret in The Crown - certainly unpacks the ‘technicolour’ hysteria of Julie. She flits from one room to the other, from compliments to ridicule, from silence to indulgence. In between her erratic actions we begin to recognise Julie’s frustration towards her father’s absence, a bitterness towards her own fiancé’s rejection and anger towards her idle state of existence. 

Julie’s insanity develops in a space littered with crates of glasses supplied for the party, dishwashers being loaded and a plate of dog food waiting to be eaten. Somehow, it all feels just a little too real. As Cracknell evokes this mundane reality, we are unable to distance ourselves from the action, and Julie’s hysteria begins to seem like it could exist in a kitchen of our own.
 
Cracknell is known for her successful female centric productions, and received high praise for her last project at the National Theatre, The Deep Blue Sea (2014). When discussing Julie the director said that she doesn’t wish to shy away “from the fact it’s ugly”. Jean is an extremely candid character and establishes some of the “ugly” sentiments that Cracknell considers. The audience is always unsure if he loves Julie or intends to exploit her for her wealth. He becomes the manifestation of her distrust, whilst also being her source of salvation.
 
Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith
 

At one-point Jean exclaims ‘To torment yourself like this is a luxury!’. Stenham’s contemporary dialogue not only explores issues of social standing that still exist today, but also retains timeless themes of loyalty, isolation and responsibility. As the play goes on, both Jean and Julie can no longer ‘pretend’ and vie for control. Their need for power over one another builds towards a climax, that will leave you quietly contemplating how a party can escalate into such irreversible and disturbing events.
 
Julie is playing at the National Theatre until 8 September.
 
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