Julie at the National Theatre
The party’s over. Skipping through a hefty hat-trick of race, class and mental health, Polly Stenham’s theatrical homage to Made in Chelsea – well, Hampstead – takes the eponymous heroine of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (sans title) and thrusts her into the drunken, drugged-up world of London’s young elite. Julie (Vanessa Kirby) is celebrating/enduring her 33rd birthday, tearing the house down as live-in cleaner Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) picks up the pieces and hunky driver Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) waits for instructions from Daddy.
At just 80 minutes, including dance breaks, the production moves hella fast: Julie and Jean go from flirtation to consummation to post-coital viciousness in the blink of an eye. But the Love Island speed of romantic progression comes across as phoney due to a lack of chemistry between Kirby and Kofi Abrefa. The star of The Crown isn’t bad in the lead role, treading the line between horribly wounded animal and spoilt brat; yet her performance is still a bit of a by-the-numbers portrayal of the “famous actress in a tragedy”. Kofi Abrefa’s Jean, meanwhile, feels stiff, lacking the Brando-esque charisma suggested by his skin-hugging white t-shirt.
The play skates by on tossed-off details designed to stand in for fuller characterisation. The most egregious example of this is the approach to Julie’s mental health. Instead of challenging people’s assumptions about mental illness by having the rich, extremely privileged protagonist’s depression go unexplained, the play roots her problems in the suicide of her mother. Undeniably traumatic as that is, it throws off the careful confluence of class and race that creates the tension between the characters, and determines what each is “allowed” to feel. In other words, what happens to the protagonist’s mother is so tragic that Jean just comes off as callous when he claims he “doesn’t have the luxury” of being sad like her.
As is something of a trademark for the director, Carrie Cracknell adds an ensemble of dancers to Strindberg’s three-hander: revellers and ravers that act as the buzzing in Julie’s brain, hyenas crawling across her mind. This deft control of movement extends to Kirby specifically; Cracknell always has her above Jean and Kristina, be it by standing on the ludicrously long slab of a table or the kitchen counters, a constant visual reminder of the class dynamic.
Basically, everything good about the production that isn’t Teixeira’s dignified performance comes from Cracknell, especially the haunting zoom-out ending. But slick and chic as Julie is, Stenham’s update can’t escape the shallow end of the rather deep pool it’s swimming in.
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Julie is at the National Theatre from 31st May until 4th August 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.