“Woah. She just went from zero to 100 and didn’t come back, did she?” puffed my companion as we walked out of Richmond Theatre into the calmest of summer’s evenings, which belied the rather more sombre note on which After Miss Julie had finished moments before. Not only was it a shock to see Helen George – usually all sprightliness and sparkle – descend into heaving waves of mania and ultimately seeking suicide, but after a grounding of moderate unease in the early stages of the play, things had spiralled so spectacularly out of control towards the end that it was hard not to feel somewhat bemused as to what, precisely, had happened. Class wars gone nuclear, is the answer. And judging by our breathless astonishment upon exit, here was a production (90 minutes straight through, no interval) that had clearly done its homework – and some extra, just in case – on how to build drama.
In this Theatre Royal Bath production, currently reaching the end of an extensive UK tour, Call The Midwife and Strictly Come Dancing star George plays the Julie of the title, the privileged daughter of a wealthy peer, and she is gaiety itself, or so she would have you believe, at a time when the social pecking order was rigidly obeyed. ‘Miss Julie’ (as the staff must call her) can be as whimsical as her whim takes her, and adorable we must indeed think it. The servants of her household all know their place, and indulge her accordingly, which is how we meet her father’s chauffeur John (a suitably surly Richard Flood) and his nearly-fiancé Christine (the steadfast Amy Cudden).
Patrick Marber’s 2003 take on Strindberg’s nineteenth century play is set directly after the Second World War, on the night of Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945, in the bowels of Julie’s family estate whilst a raucous party rages on upstairs. We are introduced to the homely Christine as she whips up a late meal for John, who has been detained by Miss Julie’s insatiable appetite for dancing, which he cannot refuse. The comforting smells that Christine produces, her plain and reliable attire, create a sense of calm that immediately stands at odds with Julie, who stumbles tipsily into the kitchen, arms and limbs flailing around, demanding drinks and that John dances with her yet again, no matter what tittle tattle that might cause.
George is dressed in a high-waisted red skirt with a dramatic slit up one leg that reveals a white silk and lace slip. The costume design is spot on, making her seem gregarious and beautiful, with a hint of the risqué. With her angelic blonde hair, and red lips that aren’t just striking but scream of danger, (particularly for John), one slowly but surely sees Christine float to the back of his mind in Julie’s presence. But this can be no easy romance. Not when there are so many divides, so many points of contention between them – class, status, wealth, politics, experience, you name it – that are only worsened by their mutual pride. So when Julie tells John to dance with her again, he replies with, “As you wish, I’m at your service.” And though that is absolutely true – he is in no place to disobey her – she doesn’t want to feel like that is the case: “It’s not an order, it’s an invitation!” she replies. “Erase that face of feudal anxiety and come and dance!” Here, George’s childlike smile positively glistens with innocence, but her eyes ice over when John does deign to defy her later orders, such as kissing her foot, grinding him down into aggressive submission.
This isn’t just playing with fire, this is waging war: both parties continuously prepare attacks on the other, circling one another on the offensive, sometimes launching killer shots that take all their strength and simply unleashing a heavy fire of crafted insults to wear their opponent out with sheer repetition. Yes, it’s no wonder George looked battle weary when taking her curtain call (her tear-stricken face could barely seem to acknowledge the applauding crowd), and it is new to see her seemingly so unhinged.
This is a clever, layered performance that shows the whole spectrum of Julie’s complicated psyche: you occasionally feel sorry for this immature woman, the victim of a loveless upbringing; sometimes you look at her loathingly as she wantonly seduces another woman’s intended, while at others you just want to hide behind your program as her wrath bubbles up. It’s not a George people have seen before. Perhaps she could have let up, once the fury had set in, or delivered more nuance, but it seems truer to her version of Julie that she passes the point of no return.
Flood is a good match for George and, similarly, makes us flit between admiring and deploring him. Is he quite the victim he seems? Has he taken advantage of an unstable young woman? His gruff delivery of some of the wittier lines has great effect: “Remember your position”, she hisses when he gets snide the morning after. To which he drily replies, “Which one madam?” Fans of Strictly can rest easy since director Anthony Banks gets in a nice bit of dancing on a projected screen above the kitchen, where we get to see just what Julie and John get up to at the party. It’s utterly shameless, but it’s a cute trick.
This play is not without its lighter moments, but it is definitely darker overall than one might expect from the jollity of the outset. It also makes a profound point, by Marber setting it when he does, for one can’t but feel that this power play between two stubborn creatures holed up in a country pile is somewhat futile given that the world has just come out of such devastating conflict. And maybe that’s it – maybe we’re not supposed to give a damn after all. But we do, which, in itself, is exasperating.
Our reviewer saw After Miss Julie at Richmond Theatre whilst on a UK tour. Currently at Milton Keynes Theatre until 23rd July 2016. Production images by Nobby Clark. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.