Review: Mademoiselle Julie, Barbican

“A qui la faute”

Lyn Gardner recently wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian theatre blog about her desire to see more British directors taking a radical approach to classic plays. She used as her prime example for them to take inspiration from as Benedict Andrews’ modern take on Three Sisters at the Young Vic which has been by and large rapturously received, whilst I found it a highly problematic interpretation. And ever the contrarian, I was surprised to find that the critical reception for Mademoiselle Julie – whose run at the Barbican has just finished – was decidedly lukewarm, given that I thought it was excellent. Between directorial innovations, re-readings of the texts and the behaviours of our own critics, it strikes me that there’s something odd about such a dichotomy.

I ought to begin by confessing my complete love for Juliette Binoche. Way back last year when this was first announced (along with Cate Blanchett, that was a good day!), I didn’t hesitate to fork out considerably more money that I am used to in order to get some great stalls seats and it was well worth it, for me at least, and not just because of the thrill of seeing Binoche acting in her mother tongue. Frédéric Fisbach’s production was first seen at the 2011 Festival d’Avignon and re-stages Strindberg’s play in the coolly modernist setting of a swanky penthouse, superbly designed by Laurent P Berger. Terje Sinding has translated the text into French but without updating it, so there are undoubtedly moments where a literal reading of the words creates tension – the nineteenth century references at odds with this contemporary world – the questions of gender hypocrisy, the transience of sexual desire as the basis for relationships and the potentially transformative power of love remain at the heart of the play. 

And the strength of Fisbach’s directorial approach means that to focus on the incongruities of the text vis-à-vis a classical interpretation is to miss the direction that this production is taking. This is a heightened world of vivid emotion and enthralling strangeness – Binoche literally sparkles in a luxe gold dress and traces the giddily dancing highs and bruisingly visceral lows of the lady of the house whose dalliances with the household staff are shattering the certainties of the world around her. She flows around the stage with ease and dramatic purpose and gives a spell-binding performance throughout.

Nicolas Bouchaud’s arrogant Jean is a languorous presence and Bénédicte Cerutti’s cook Kristin, Jean’s partner, is full of quiet dignity. But Fisbach is also concerned with portraying the environment in which these people live. A company of extras dance the night away at the staff party that forms the backdrop for the first part of the play, playing out their own little dramas including one exceptionally long gay kiss, but as the drama progresses they become a Greek chorus of sorts, their masked figures advancing on Julie and Jean in a striking visual.

And as the relationship between them is irrevocably changed, so too is the world around them. Interludes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fever Ray video pop up unexpectedly; Berger’s lighting comes into its own as blood-red darkness suffuses the stage to be later replaced with blinding light; the actors turn to speak to us instead of each other as the intensity of feeling becomes too much. It’s non-naturalistic, unconventionally imaginative, different – all the things Gardner seems keen to encourage. 

So it is thus a little surprising that the weight of critical opinion has swung so firmly against this, yet for Three Sisters. Chekhov’s text may have been thoroughly modernised by Andrews but if one is being picky about inconsistent details as reviewers have been about Julie, I don’t think I’ve read a single review that explains the sisters’ paralysis in a modern context, ie why don’t they use their iPhones to check the next train to Moscow and just take it, their tragedy is so rooted in the role of women in turn-of-the-last-century society that fast-forwarding a hundred years yet keeping their problems the same just didn’t make sense to me.

And whilst Fisbach’s directorial flourishes have been derided as ‘nonsensical Gallic chic’, Andrews’ own idiosyncratic moves, like the lighting of a hundred candles for no reason or the interminable removal of the tables, were generally welcomed as illuminating. I am genuinely intrigued as to why these two productions should have inspired such divergent responses – it almost seems as if they have been judged by different criteria – and whether Mademoiselle Julie would have received such negativity had it been directed by an Englishman. Gardner is right to call for directors to be more open to radical approaches but it would seem that the critical establishment might need to follow suit too.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £4.50
Booking until 29th September

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