Sophie Jagger reviews David Eldridge's new adaptation of Strindberg classic Miss Julie at Manchester's Royal Exchange.
‘Magnificent’ is how Jean, the ambitious valet of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, describes his mistress in the first scene of the play. Watching Maxine Peake in the title role of the Royal Exchange’s new production, his choice of adjective seems entirely apt. Peake’s performance is a triumph, arcing from bold aristocrat, confident in her privilege and power, to ruined woman, vibrating with despair and frustration and utterly lost - all in the space of a single midsummer night.
In the programme notes, playwright and adapter David Eldridge (working from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund) admits to an admiration of Peake’s neck; appearing in white, she holds her head high, throat bared, shoulders exposed, emerging and escaping from the restrictive boning of her dress.
The corsetry isn’t the only thing restricting the characters; in various ways, they struggle against the rigid class and gender roles of the late nineteenth century, codes of behaviour that can’t be broken without consequence, and lines that can’t be crossed. Jean (Joe Armstrong, also excellent though distractingly growly at times) adapts as best he can, scheming and seducing and trying to better himself, but remains ultimately in thrall to the ring of the servants’ bell and the demands of the Count. Similarly, Julie initially seems to defy censure, dancing with whomever she pleases, but as the play progresses and the balance of power shifts under her feet, it becomes apparent that she is dependent on others for definition, that she is keenly attuned to how people see her. Listening to Jean’s story of watching her as a child, she is enraptured, positively glowing under the kitchen lights.
The engine of the play is the push and pull between Julie and Jean and it lives or dies by the chemistry; Peake and Armstrong are electric. Standing at opposite ends of the kitchen table which dominates Max Jones’ set, they clutch chairs, white-knuckled and thrilled, fascinated and repulsed all at once, always watching each other, each the possibility of the other’s escape. They sell Strindberg’s heavy-handed symbolism beautifully (Julie wants to fall! Jean wants to climb!), aided by Eldridge’s wonderful, lucid adaptation. There’s surprisingly little physical contact, and what there is makes the breath catch; when they’re not touching, you’re waiting for them to touch again. Their fine work is beautifully balanced by Carla Henry, earthy and endearing as Kristin.
The play is interrupted by an interlude of midsummer madness involving two maids vying for the attentions of a fiddler - the struggles of the main characters played out without barriers of class to contend with. A foot is kissed, but the fiddler’s mouth trails all the way up to a thigh; where Julie caresses a single flower, one of the maids scatters an entire bunch in a fit of passion. The outcome is equally lusty, but altogether less tragic (threesomes: they solve everything!).
This insertion by director Sarah Franckom, with the maids played by local drama students, builds on the community aspect of the work she’s being doing at the theatre, like the chorus in last year’s outstanding production of A View From The Bridge. It’s suggested that Jean’s aspirations have been somewhat shaped and encouraged by the theatre - a view met with knowing chuckles by the audience. Strindberg’s prescriptive directions and descriptions are appropriately altered in-the-round for the Royal Exchange in an arguably more democratic staging, both thematically and theatrically resonant. Though his heroine cannot live within the confines of her situation, her life in the theatre and her reincarnation in the form of Maxine Peake has indeed been magnificent.
A selection of photos from the Royal Exchange's collection:
Miss Julie plays at Manchester's Royal Exchange until May 12.
(Evenings) Monday - Friday, 7.30pm / Saturday, 8.00pm (Matinees) Wednesdays, 2.30pm / Saturdays, 4.00pm (Extra Matinee) Tuesday 24 April, 2.30pm
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes (no interval)
Tickets: £9 - £33 (click here for more details)
For more information, visit: http://www.royalexchange.co.uk/event.aspx?id=499