An elegant and occasionally startling adaptation, Julie at the National Theatre is anchored by mesmerising performances from Vanessa Kirby and Thalissa Teixeira
“If anyone has had anyone, I’ve had you“
It’s Julie’s party and she’ll cry if she wants to, shag someone else’s fella if she wants to, use a blender in a somewhat inappropriate way if she wants to. Would you cry too if it happened to you? Chance would be a fine thing, as Julie is a trust fund baby and her 30-something birthday party is taking place in the antiseptic chic of the vast Hampstead townhouse where she resides with her (often absent) father and their staff.
Carrie Cracknell’s direction of Polly Stenham’s Julie (after Strindberg, as opposed to Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie) and Vanessa Kirby’s performance of that title role does something rather unexpected in the way it fleshes out and makes more complex its anti-hero. She’s still a straight-up entitled bitch to be sure, but we’re shown that she’s part of a cycle of sadness and abuse and neglect. And we’re dared to empathise.
By pulling out the focus to show us the hard-partying masses she surrounds herself with, yet remains isolated from (strong movement work from Ann Yee), the facade she presents to the outside world is deepened. And consequently when the mask slips, when the psychological torment pours out, the contrast is all the more marked. Kirby is mesmeric in every aspect here – physically, there’s a beautiful looseness, emotionally, there’s a punishing darkness.
The moments when she allows herself to be herself happen ‘below stairs’, a space occupied by here by Brazilian housekeeper Kristina (a superb Thalissa Teixeira) and Ivoirian chauffeur Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), who is her fiancé. And at the end of the party as Julie and Jean shack up in search of escape, whether momentary release or actually getting the hell out of Dodge, Strindberg’s observations on class and gender are refracted through an altogether more contemporary prism which also folds in race into its unholy tangle of human frailty.
The result is something that looks elegant (the final image is undoubtedly stunning, even as it recalls a certain other), achingly hip in Tom Scutt’s swanky design, but which is flintily hard right beneath the surface. Look elsewhere for likeable characters, this is complicated, messy, brutal. Judging on appearances is all too easy and between them, Stenham, Cracknell and Kirby make you really think about that.