“I’m a woman of…simple pleasures”
Miss Julie has proved an enduring classic over the years, not least because of its timeless malleability, the strength of Strindberg’s writing able to bear the weight of any conceit or concept that a director might throw at it. So it is perhaps little surprise that adaptors have taken it a step further – Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie relocated to 1945 to a just-post-war England on the cusp of great change and similarly, Jonathan Sidgwick’s About Miss Julie has shifted the play to the UK after another great conflict.
Specifically it is 1923 – the First World War may be over but the aftershocks of its seismic upheaval are still rippling through all levels of society. Aristocrat Miss Julie is longing for a return to the carefree status quo, handsome butler John is still carrying the trauma of life in the trenches with him and Christine, his fiancée, has been empowered by her experiences as a suffragette and as a working woman in the war, so a life of service in her master’s kitchen no longer seems quite enough. Thus sex, power, class, violence, even Julie’s budgie all intersect over one torrid Midsummer’s eve.
Raf Santana’s production has much to commend it through the sweltering heat of the Kings Head, especially in the way the characters have been reconceived. Sophie Linfield’s Miss Julie is pretty much manic-depressive, her malaise clearly deeper than just boredom at the party she is hosting as she wreaks havoc down in the kitchen. Sidgwick takes on the role of John, a man hungry for the world to deliver the change he fought so hard to ensure and brimming with anger that its yet to happen and Suzanne Shaw impresses as the passionate and equally determined Christine.
At the same time, the strengths of these characterisations carry with them challenges that aren’t always met. Linfield’s almost-muttered dialogue can be hard to hear and there’s little sexuality flowing from her upper-class finery, the military rigidity of Sidgwick’s John underplays his animalistic fervour and whilst Shaw revels in Christine’s independent spirit and her devotion to John (there’s a subtly beautiful moment when a gun is brandished), there’s something unconvincing in the extreme contrasts of the character, especially in her chatty informality with her mistress.
Still, it remains an intriguing adaptation of the story, a useful prism through which to examine the disruption in British social order caused by the Great War.