Saturday, April 02, 2016

After Miss Julie - desire, envy, power, revenge … and blood (The MAC until 9 April)

Adapted from August Strindberg’s 1988 play Miss Julie, Patrick Marber has revamped his earlier 1995 script and relocated the action of After Miss Julie to a country house in Fermanagh shortly after the end of the Second World War.

Christine (played by Pauline Hutton) and John (Ciaran McMenamin) serve at the pleasure of “His Lordship”, an unseen widower of ten years. While he’s away from the estate his ‘lush’ daughter Miss Julie (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) joins in the dancing in a VE Day celebration in the barn with the workers and sets tongues wagging.
“I have low expectations, I'm rarely disappointed. I understand, how could you resist her beauty when you're just a man?”

Christine is the cook. Her character is driven by twin principles of an upright religious fervour and a practical realism that allowed backhanders to be given to the butcher to overcome the meagre supply of wartime ration coupons.

The house thrives on secrets. Although Christine and valet John are an item, John and Miss Julie both have eyes for each other based on strong pre-war memories.
“I saw your mother pushing you in your pram … My first memory is you … and a feeling without the words to describe it. Now I can call it love … or envy. A man of my class can rise, like break, but not cake.”

John shows deference to his master and receives respect in return. However he covets the wealth and lifestyle he is denied, sneaking away with unfinished bottles of fine wine from the table upstairs. The more Miss Julie pushes his buttons, the less hesitant he is to begin to break rank and boldly confront her with his unattractive, violent and misogynistic manner.

Miss Julie displays manic mood swings, with sudden lurches from being forward and frisky on the kitchen bench to moments of self doubt, incapable of knowing what to do next. At times the dialogue is rapid fire and emotionally charged. Yet the waves of urgency and discordant soundtrack are complemented with some beautifully becalmed scenes. Carl Kennedy’s musical interludes allow an actor to potter around the stage, while the audience watch them wordlessly peel back another layer of their character.

Sarah Bacon’s set is based on the kitchen in Enniskillen’s Castle Coole. Cupboards line the walls along with a black range dominates one side of the room. A chunky wooden table and benches occupy the middle of the floor. High windows and a back corridor bring shafts of light into the room. The intricate sound design makes pans sizzle and wafts birdsong and singing into the spacious scullery.

Great theatre often sneaks up and surprises you. And that’s the case with Prime Cut’s production of After Miss Julie. What could have been a simple upstairs/downstairs tale of class and gender becomes a much more complicated three hander full of desire, envy, power, revenge … and blood (mostly Julie’s).

Emma Jordan’s direction gives the spiralling emotions space to grow and time to linger. The cavernous kitchen is mostly filled by the three competing egos and after a slow start the one act play builds up momentum that sustains it to its conclusion.

Lisa Dwyer Hogg creates a mesmerising Miss Julie, while Ciaran McMenamin plays a thoroughly dislikeable John who really deserves to meet his end in a similar manner to the unfortunate canary. But it is Pauline Hutton’s unbending Christine who wins the sympathy of the audience … until we discern that she too has feet of clay.

Perversely while I felt that last year’s Prime Cut production of God of Carnage was “crying out for adaptation to a Northern Ireland location with local occupations and local accents”, I’m not so sure whether After Miss Julie needed the tweaking. As a period piece, the Fermanagh location explains the inclusion of local vernacular, but adds relatively little to the themes or meaning.

If you like your theatre full on and challenging, go and see After Miss Julie in the MAC (until 9 April).

Production photos: Ciaran Bagnall.

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