Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean in Julie at the National Theatre (c) Richard H Smith
Polly Stenham’s modern and super-stylish adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 masterpiece, Miss Julie, probably shouldn’t be compared to the much-produced original work too closely. Following hot on the heels of Howard Brenton’s highly acclaimed translation/adaptation less than a year ago at the Jermyn Street Theatre and the steamy Ireland-based film adaptation in 2014 starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton, the production currently filling the seats of the NT’s Lyttelton Theatre – no matter how striking in both appearance and performance – was always going to struggle to equal Strindberg’s 19th Century jeopardy.
With the house to herself, the over-privileged but troubled Julie is having a lavish 33rd birthday party bash. However, Vanessa Kirby’s wayward blonde is finding it hard to relate to the house-full of upper-middle-class spongers and users. Instead, she descends to the kitchen where she flirts with her father’s driver, Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) in an ascending battle of sexual wit. Jean is engaged to the household help, the Brazilian Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira), but that doesn’t stop Julie from slowly seducing Jean into a sexual liaison after Kristina retires to bed.
The main area in Carrie Cracknell’s production, which immediately raises a flag, is the absence of the 19th Century class system and, thus, the inherent danger of mixing the two. While Jean and Kristina are without doubt the ‘hired help’, the sense of upstairs-downstairs is much less convincing in Stenham’s modern take. That said, Kirby gives us a fascinating and hypnotically tantalising performance as a young woman whose mind is savagely unpredictable. Constant toe-curling and climbing all over the kitchen table are just two giveaways to Julie’s instability and disfunctionality.
Kofi Abrefa does well to present Julie’s conquest, Jean, as an opportunist – one minute engaged to Kristina, and the next having sex with Julie who he all-too-easily plans to run away with at the drop of a hat... which, let’s face it, is never going to happen!
Tom Scutt’s sublimely layered and sleek design (complemented with Guy Hoare’s outstanding lighting) perfectly sets the scene which, I found, made the superficial collection of party guests completely and rightly irritating – but not without style, Ann Yee. Mixed with Stuart Earl’s original music and Christopher Shutt’s brave sound design, it’s very easy to feel alienated from the ostentatious celebrations going on away from the central hideously expensive kitchen area.
Julie runs 1 hour, 30mins without an interval and is playing until 8th September
Julie at the National Theatre (c) Richard H Smith