Tuesday, October 6, 2009

After Miss Julie

Whenever I think of playwright August Strindberg, I envision two characters with their hands clasped firmly around each other’s throats, together through all of eternity in an endless “dance of death.”

Thus it is with “After Miss Julie,” Patrick Marber’s re-imagining of August Strindberg’s play “Miss Julie.” The “After” appended to the title refers to the fact that this is Marber’s take on the Strindberg play, but it also draws attention to the resetting of the time of the story to 1945, some 70 years AFTER (get it?!!!) the original version took place. The locale has been moved as well, from a manor in Sweden to an estate outside of London. The time shift, in particular, is supposed to be viewed as significant, since the play has been fast-forwarded to the date of a key election in England that is considered to mark the start of the dismantling of the rigid pre-war class system.

It is uncertain whether American audiences would grasp the significance of the date, but anyone familiar with the Masterpiece Theater mega-hit “Upstairs-Downstairs” will recognize the inherent disparity in the lives of the key players: the spoiled daughter of wealth and the duty-bound servant. Indeed, the shift in time works; the war between the classes is not “owned” by any particular era.

The play (in either version) unfolds as a disturbing and increasingly vicious struggle for power between its two central characters. Miss Julie of the title is a young, bored aristocrat with a rebellious streak and a supercharged libido. John (“Jean” in the original) is a valet, working for Miss Julie’s father. During a raucous Midsummer Night party underwritten by Daddy for the servants, Miss Julie hones in on John like a black widow spider in heat. But what starts out to be reminiscent of any number of movies in which someone like Bette Davis chases after the stable hand, turns into a much more compelling tale of gender, class, and power, played out on a highly unstable teeter-totter.

At first, Miss Julie seems to have the upper hand, with the sway she holds as mistress of the house. Then the tide turns, and John wields power over Miss Julie, a dominant man lording it over a subservient woman. Then back again, as Miss Julie threatens to cry “rape” and get John not only fired, but imprisoned. And so it goes, back and forth, with elements of lust, rage, and sadomasochism making for quite an evening of family entertainment.

Miss Julie is played with guts, verve, and lots of steamy heat by screen actress Sienna Miller. The role of John is played by Jonny Lee Miller, the more experienced stage actor but who is possibly better known for his television and film acting (“Trainspotting” comes to mind.). Both do fine work, as does Marin Ireland as Christine, another of the below-stairs help who is more-or-less betrothed to John and who does not take too kindly to the goings-on between Miss Julie and John. Another figure whose presence bears great weight, even though he is never seen, is Miss Julie’s father, the Lord of the Manor, whose temporary absence has allowed Miss Julie to sneak off for her adventures with the hoi polloi, and whose later return crushes both characters’ dreams of escape.

The play runs along at a steady clip, clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission. There are times when the tug-of-war starts to border on the wacko, as in Tennessee Williams at his most extreme, but it certainly makes for an interesting experience of both theater and theatrics.

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