Theatre Review: Julie @ The National Theatre
by Angelique Jones
Julie raises some existential questions about mental health and the prejudicial disparities between white middle-class and ethnic minorities in a contemporary take of Strindberg’s classic, reimagined by Polly Stenham at the National Theatre. As the show transports a woman originally written in 1888 into 2018, still succumbed to the same scrutinies of just being a woman, I wonder: is Julie just a product of an historical narrative that needs to be re-written?
Julie is a confronting play that captivated and confused me, leaving me with a desperate need to just talk about it. I wanted to talk about my conflicted feelings, my judgements of the characters and their actions as I watched a middle-class trust-fund pill-popping “woman-child” unravel and become ensnared in the tragedy of her privileged existence – a very modern but troubling existence rooted in imperialism and misogyny. In Julie, Stenham has created a microcosm of modern Britain.
As wild child Julie (played by BAFTA winning Vanessa Kirby) celebrates her 33rd birthday in her (absent) father’s Hampstead Heath mansion amongst a mob of hedonistic coke-snorting and gang-banging partygoers. The production presents two competing worlds: it’s a dual set from designer Tom Stutt, introduced by loud rave music and strobe lights. A background stage raised on a platform boasts the birthday debauchery in a primitive dance perfectly choreographed with the self-awareness of this reckless “subculture,” as the crew of privileged addicts thrust and swing in some other room of the house. All the while, underpinning this is the forefront set of a white, clinical and spacious kitchen, inhabited by the good-natured Brazilian maid Kristina, played by Thalissa Teixeira, dragging her tired flip-flopping heels across the floor cleaning up after the party’s mess. She is accompanied by her fiancé, the black family chauffeur Jean, played by Eric Kofi Abrefa. It’s a (little bit obvious) micro-microcosm of modern London, packed together tightly but living starkly different realities.
"What struck me whilst watching was this idea of how the past severely affects our present in all forms and guises."
As Julie flits between the kitchen help and the party, Jean takes a naughty swig of the father’s Chateau Latour.t is clear that there are some lines to be crossed, and Jean’s preoccupation of Julie’s behaviour with and accusation that “they are not her friends,” leaves room for little other than the assumption that he likes her… or at least, her money. Julie gets her way: it’s her birthday after all, and sweeps Jean off to dance with her, whilst Kristina’s “good” nature sets her up to be made a fool.
But something just doesn’t sit quite right - more so than the fact that it is not supposed to sit quite right - considering the production opened with the filthy decadence of hedonism, adults with too much of daddy’s money and a lack of morals, then surely Julie’s character would need to partake in something very risqué in order to shock and find herself in a compromising situation of no turning back, to the point of suicide, as Strindberg’s original Miss Julie did when she had an affair with her father’s (the count) black valet. When Julie and Jean inevitably sleep together, it seems more a result of the narrative plot, rather than a building of sexual tension or chemistry, which is lacking in this production. We are left anticipating Julie’s outcome with no investment of any real relationship between the two, but more of an investment in Kirby’s stage presence. There was, however, a real sense of foreboding and anxiety, again amplified by Kirby as she frolicked across the gargantuan kitchen table and pulled us in with a spellbindingly visceral embodiment of her character.
So, the question being asked: is how this adaptation about a woman’s inevitable road to suicide could be presented in a way that’s relevant in the 21st century, and still transgress social boundaries without it being pushed back into the past or into a middle-class echo chamber of exclusivity?
A white woman having sex with a black person in 2018 is in no way shape or form shocking (as it was in Strindberg’s 1888 misogynistic tale), so all focus was on the details and the language. Stenham does capture that upper-middle-class condescension through Julie’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of her staff/friends – she is in that halfway house of wanting to be their friend, but aware of their perceived differences and her upbringing.
And unlike Strindberg, whose open antipathy towards the “man-hating half woman” Julie, Stenham’s empathetic expression of the character addresses the complexities of being a woman brought up in a modern patriarchal system. Is she not a product of her surroundings? I felt confused about the way that Jean was presented though, in that, I really did not like him. He displays little respect, he is adulterous whereby his only fear is of being caught, and he is an opportunist, seeing Julie for her monetary value (Julie must have daddy’s trust fund right?); both see each other as a way out but there’s little evidence as to why, other than Julie’s inherited wealth which seems to be her Achilles heel. What if this is the 21st century then? No longer is “class” or climbing the ladder just about your name, but rather financial stability.
Julie addresses a very specific type of racism projected out of the upper-middle class but displaying that racism inherent in our language, yet somewhat fails to express the endemic realities of racism in the UK, mainly due to the alienating subculture that the story illuminates. Jean and Kristina’s characters are a little too estranged to be fully realised, and sometimes their dialogue is clunky - along with their acting - almost an afterthought compared to the witty pathos of Julie. The sometimes jerky shifts from the upstairs party/sex scenes to the domestic realm below serves (perhaps unintended) as a reminder of Western ignorance of the diversity within our culture.
But, then I think it was getting at something else, the habitual archaism of society. I couldn’t help but feel deeply sad for Julie, aided by Kirby’s compelling and nuanced performance. I felt very sorry for the alienating circumstance that she finds herself in: incapable of expressing herself without coming across as an entitled bitch, and unable to ask for help as the victim of her actions; she is repressed into her own rich-girl bubble. Depression is depression, regardless of wealth and social status, so the problem is our attitudes towards it and the help, or lack of, available for those without the means to seek therapy, or even to self-medicate. During one of Julie’s confessions, Jean poignantly says “I do not have the luxury” to be sad like you, people like him just don’t have the time to be depressed he says. This, and Vanessa Kirby, are what make this play so provocative and thought-provoking – it’s pointing at those contradictions of trying to be liberal, independent and “foreword-thinking” but still living off of a history rooted in conservatism.
"In Julie, Stenham has created a microcosm of modern Britain."
Stenham’s version slams us with an uncomfortable reality of the “carefree” rituals of the elite, and the hard working and low-paid “immigrant” population of England that they rely on. But it’s not just the elite that need pay attention here, because the play is underpinned with subtle inequalities happening right under our noses and even perhaps our own lips (I imagine this is certainly the case for many theatre-attendants of this play!).
I was captivated and disgusted at the same time. The intoxicated claustrophobia of the party scenes made me never want to try drugs, or even get drunk ever again, regardless of the glitter-clad models that are on the verge of glamorising this destructive habit.
What struck me whilst watching was this idea of how the past severely affects our present in all forms and guises. The tragedy of Julie’s privileged character is that she now – in this contemporary London adaptation - exists in a world that no longer allows people like this to exist without judgement, even more so than just being a woman, which Strindberg described as being “small and foolish, and therefore evil…she is useful only as an ovary and womb.” Of course, we should judge the ignorance and gross hypocrisies of those maintaining social hierarchies, and there is no excuse for racism, however camouflaged it may be. But who, then, should we be aiming our judgements at? One of the devastations, for me, is this idea that the woman(/en) is the one to pay the price; not her father, or the contemporary dinosaurs rooted in patriarchal colonialism, but the millennials. Julie’s absent father takes on a monolithic presence, seemingly evading any of the consequences that Julie, and her mother clearly found themselves in, as its noted in one of her many snippets with Jean that he is probably off with some younger woman somewhere. Julie is unable to cope with this hereditary burden, revealing herself to be the one who found her mother dead after completing suicide, she lives haunted with the trauma of her past, and like her mother, results in her suicide, to which Kristina (another tragic character) finds her. The tragedy is that she felt she had no way out, like so many suffering from a mental illness in the UK and post-trauma depression;her wealth did not change her outcome.
This play really got me thinking. I am a fan of anything that makes me question my assumptions and ideas, and also confuses me at the same time; it’s experimental and that’s what art should be. Whatever the shortcomings of Carrie Cracknell’s production, her direction hints towards the complexities of existence in the 21st century and this idea that although this story has transgressed over a century, and our attitudes towards women and race have changed, we still have a long way to go. Julie really is all about the Julie - that is to say, Vanessa Kirby, and if nothing else, she is certainly worth watching.
Julie is a the National Theatre until 8th September 2018, book tickets here.