Miss Julie – Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

The Writer

Written in 1888 by the Swedish writer August Strindberg, this “Naturalistic Tragedy” focuses on the tale of Miss Julie and two of her servants Jean and Kristin. To understand the play, it is perhaps wise to try to understand a little bit about the writer first.  

August Strindberg was born in Stockholm in 1849. His mother died when he was 13, his father remarried and he hated his stepmother. He attended the University of Uppsala and had various jobs, working in newspapers, teaching and libraries. He tried and failed as an actor, and his early attempts at writing were met with rejection.  He married the actress Siri von Essen in 1877 and he achieved his first critical success with his satirical novel The Red Room in 1879. In 1882 he wrote The Swedish People, attacking the nation’s values and earning himself many enemies. In 1883 he moved to France yet his writings still continued to cause outrage in his homeland. In 1887 he moved to Germany and a year later to Denmark where he wrote Creditors, Miss Julie and The Stronger.

Strindberg returned to his homeland in 1889, where he later divorced Siri. He moved back to Germany, marrying an Austrian journalist Frida Uhl in 1893, but they separated just a year later after the birth of their daughter. What lay ahead of Strindberg was many years of paranoia and mental anguish, most likely attributed to the overindulgence of absinthe. Towards the turn of the century he resumed his writing career, once again returning to Sweden to do so. He married his third wife, a young Norwegian actress whom he divorced three years later. In 1907 he fell in love with a 19 year old, Fanny Falkner, and died in 1912 of stomach cancer.

His attitude towards women and life in general was complicated. He was a man of many contradictions. He was a nihilist filled with romantic ideas, an atheist and socialist, he was interested in the aristocracy, yet empathised with the lower working classes, and he held a long-term love/hate relationship with his homeland. He loathed feminism, but he was so obsessed by women, you could say that he loved them as much as he hated them. It is little wonder he never held onto a marriage for long and was convinced that happiness was an impossibility of life. His ongoing pessimistic attitude to life is shown in his works, and Miss Julie, written when his relationship with his first wife was drawing to an end, shows his hatred towards the aristocratic classes.

The thing that most struck a chord when reading the text for Miss Julie, was the authors preface. It is unusual for a play to have such a long explanation levied on it, but it shows the thoughts flowing through Strindberg’s mind and his attitude to the theatrical audiences who were likely to see his work.

“the theatre has always served as a grammar-school to young people, women, and those who have acquired a little knowledge, all of whom retain the capacity for deceiving themselves and being deceived…” “…perhaps a time will arrive when we have become so developed, so enlightened, that we can remain indifferent before the spectacle of life, which now seems so brutal, so cynical, so heartless; when we have closed up those lower, unreliable instruments of thought which we call feelings, and which have been rendered not only superfluous but harmful by the final growth of our reflective organs.  The fact that the heroine arouses our pity depends only on our weakness in not being able to resist the sense of fear that the same fate could befall ourselves.” “That my tragedy makes a sad impression on many is their own fault…Everybody is clamouring arrogantly for the ‘joy of life’…as if the joy of life consisted in being silly…I find the joy of life in its violent and cruel struggles…”

The Play

Miss Julie takes place in the kitchen of a nobleman’s house one Midsummer’s Eve. The servants are having a party in the barn next door, and Miss Julie, the noblemans daughter, has been dancing with them all whilst her father is away visiting relatives (Miss Julie having refused to go with hum.) She has broken off her engagement having humiliated her fiancé, and has now turned her attention to Jean, the valet. He does not think it right she should show favour to one servant, however he agrees to go back to the barn with her. He returns to the kitchen to tell the cook, Kristin that Miss Julie’s behaviour is shocking. Miss Julie returns to the kitchen to demand that Jean changes from his livery into his plain coat, Kristin, ignored by both slips quietly off to sleep. Jean and Miss Julie tell each other of dreams they have had, but Jean warns Miss Julie of the dangers of playing with fire. When she asks if he has ever been in love, he admits to being in love with her. She begs him to take her away from this life and to a new one, but soon realises that she is just the first rung of the social ladder Jean intends to climb. He has taught himself French, and learnt the ways of the world from visiting the theatre, she realises that he thinks he is above her station, and that her attitude makes her below her own.

The next morning Kristen enters the kitchen, read for church. She is aware they have spent the night together and proclaims she cannot stay in such a house where people lower their standards. She tells Jean they must go somewhere else and be married, Miss Julie, distraught by this thought begs Kristen to leave the house and go with her and Jean to start a new life abroad. Kristen ignores her pleas and sets off for church, but not before saying she will tell the grooms not to give Miss Julie or Jean horses to escape by. Her plan thwarted, and her father back, there is now only one way out for Miss Julie…

Howard Brenton’s adaptation of Strindberg’s text keeps as close to the original Swedish text as possible, keeping alive and the dark and light of Strindberg’s twisted mind to keep the audience entertained and shocked by the brutality of the situation. Strindberg showed with great clarity the flawed nature of human beings, and those flawed characters are brought to life with highly engaging performances by Charlotte Hamblin, James Sheldon and Izabella Urbanowicz.

Whilst the set retains the period setting of Strinberg’s notes, the production still resonates with a modern audience as it did when first performed in 1889. There may have been a shift in class relations (no longer the upstairs downstairs of the aristocracy and servants) but there are still great social divides and inequality in society that destroy modern day relationships. Miss Julie allows us to question these dividends in a more romantic setting, where church bells ring in the distance, servants dance the midsummer night away in a hay strewn barn, and birdsong reminds you haven’t been to bed yet!

The Performance

The production starts with simple domestic task, Kristin is at the stove cooking, but by the end of the performance the pristine kitchen will show the remains of a booze fuelled night of passion and tragedy.

Initially, Miss Julie is the mistress of the house, in control and not afraid of outright flirtatious behaviour with her father’s valet. It’s all a different story after she has gone to bed with Jean however, no longer in control, Hamblin’s portrayal of Miss Julie becomes something akin to the wild child of the eighties, drink in hand pertaining to be the victim!

The intensity of Miss Julie is offset by the quiet, reserved dignity of Urbanowicz’s Kristin, as she bears witness to the infidelity of her fiancée Jean. No screaming or shouting, just a poised announcement that she is going to church and that she will tell the grooms as she passes, not to allow the horses out so that Jean and Miss Julie cannot make a bid for freedom.

Sheldon’s performance of the valet Jean has the light and shade of a man who resents his station; not only a servant, but servant to a woman. He dislikes being told what to do by her, but at the same time, his desire for her takes over. Kristin was an easy future, but it was Miss Julie who ignited his passion.
It’s the first time I have ever seen an audience member hand an ASM £20 after a performance saying “You should all have a drink on me. That was incredible.” I think that pretty much sums up the evening’s performance.

If you cannot get to the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (and you should try – really) Miss Julie transfers to the Jermyn Street Theatre, London in November.

Chips by the lake before watching Miss Julie!

Links for tickets here:

https://www.theatrebythelake.com/production/15917      Runs 30th June to 3rd November 2017

http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/miss-julie/  Runs 14th November to 2nd December 2017