Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 22, 2009
After Miss Julie A version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by Patrick Marber. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Set design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Mark McCullough. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Wig design by Paul Huntley. Dialect Coach Deborah Hecht. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Cast: Sienna Miller, Jonny Lee Miller, Marin Ireland.
This is surprising in itself, given that the (barely camouflaged) basis for Marber’s effort is August Strindberg’s famously salacious 1888 play, Miss Julie. Time has stripped that work of its once ban-worthy intensity, but it can still satisfy as a sexually charged evisceration of power and class concerns in a deceptively low-down upper-crust world. Its story of the high-born daughter of a count flirting and sleeping with one of “the help,” who’s wrong for her in every way, continues to have psychological resonance, even in a more enlightened America. But because the third major character, the valet’s religious and status-quo betrothed, isn’t drenched in the same steam as the other two, she’s rarely a concrete focal point.
She’s at the very center of Marber’s adaptation, which is set in an English country house on the night of the Labour Party’s historic victory over Winston Churchill in 1945. Christine represents the Everywoman the elevated Miss Julie despises - but who, with the Conservatives wrenched from power, is soon to rule the roost in a societal if not necessarily factual sense. Ireland does with her exactly what she did with Stephanie in her dynamic turn in this past spring’s reasons to be pretty: make her the most uncommon of common women.
At times she’s so subservient, she’s indistinguishable from the walls, fading into the shadows in her muted uniform. But dress her for church and she comes alive. Threaten her present or future well-being and she becomes a calculating creature who knows when to look, when to turn away, and when to acknowledge or lie about doing either. She may be average and hopeless on the outside, but a fiery inner life drives her, even in her most silent moments. The play begins with her staring out the kitchen door, watching he quasi-fiancé, John, the valet, dance with the heretofore forbidden Miss Julie, and her face is awash with loss and outright bewilderment at the reconfiguration of the world. Later, as she’s collapsed on the desk in exhaustion while John and Julie tryst, even the slump of her back is magnetic, as if a panther is waiting to pounce. Every way she speaks, moves, and even looks suggests the stakes have the potential of being higher than they’ve ever been before.
But Julie and John’s relationship is almost comically noncommittal, with neither Miller proving an acceptable fit in the role each has been assigned. Sienna is beautiful, yes, but evinces no sense of the control Julie must be able to viciously exert over John. Life for this Julie is a game, not an obstacle to be conquered, and Sienna treats threats against her existence, her station, and her soul as if they could be dispelled by a few stiff margaritas. That she could be shattered by her innate inability to be and have what she desires - or anything else - is frankly laughable. John, supposedly a former soldier and reformed womanizer, couldn’t care less about whether any development in his life involves Julie, Christine, or anyone else, the way Jonny plays him. The actor invests far more passion in polishing John’s master’s shoes at evening’s end than he ever does in romancing or renouncing either the unattainable woman who represents everything he wants or the woman he has but can’t abide existing alongside.
Had director Mark Brokaw scaled down and amped up his staging, finding ways to make the kitchen more a threatening field of war than the subdued, palatial expanse it resembles in Allen Moyer’s design, maybe he could have forced his dueling leads to better focus themselves on each other. But probably not. In reducing Strindberg’s heightened, symbolic characters to more recognizably human constructs, Marber has stripped them of the monstrous, eternal qualities that made them so interesting in the first place. So it’s hardly a shock that Christine, held up as the object of derision and scorn for both Julie and John, is the only one worth watching. Marber at least hasn’t forgotten to say things about her.
Because Julie and John aren’t so lucky, their various tugs-of-war are more temulent than tense, their outcomes easy to predict but impossible to care about. And, frankly, rather nonsensical this time around: The final scene concludes with Julie on a slow march to oblivion, after John literally and figuratively hands her the weapon of her destruction. But doesn’t she know of Labour’s promises to institute universal health care? By waiting until the establishment of the National Health Service, she could intentionally botch her suicide, stick the working classes with her recovery bills, and have the last bitter laugh. That would make as much sense as all the other out-of-nowhere developments, and would reenvision Strindberg in a way no one has ever seen before. Alas, except for Ireland, there’s nothing remotely as inventive or as standard-defying in After Miss Julie.