Missing Julie - by Kaite O'Reilly - Theatr Clwyd 17th Sep 2021 (Preview)

Theatr Clwyd - 2020 Regional Theatre of the Year. It’s easy to see why. During the darkest days of the pandemic, the theatre not only got involved with the local community, but it continued to strive to help creatives in the industry. An opportunity to stream several free online readings whilst the theatre curtain remained drawn was also grabbed.

On 5/11/2020, a reading of Kate O’Reilly’s brand-new play Missing Julie was aired. Over a coffee in the theatre, the foundations of relocating Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie to post-war Wales had begun to take shape. Performed by Sophie Melville (The Missing, The Pact); Tim Pritchett (Casualty, Black Mirror); and Victoria John (Miranda, Little Britain) I enjoyed the reading and looked forward to a time when the play would grace the stage of Theatr Clwyd.

Set in a Welsh stately home in 1921, just after the First World War, Missing Julie is described as a modern adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Whilst the story has moved to a century ago, it still feels like a contemporary piece, but it allows the dynamic between the characters to be strengthened and throughout it still remains faithful to the original storyline. After the war was a period of grief and mourning, but for some it was also a period of change, of hope, of possibilities. Many men returned home with missing limbs and this play explores their lives and the interactions they had after returning home.

The play is performed in Theatr Clwyd’s “Emlyn Williams Theatr” an intimate space which allowed Georgia Lowe’s simplistic but effective traverse staged set design. Just like when I watched Miss Julie in Keswick a few years ago, https://www.imblatheringnow.com/2017/09/miss-julie-theatre-by-lake-keswick.html the audience watches the action from either side of a long kitchen table. Whilst Keswick’s set was a homely kitchen, this set is spartan matt black, with Perspex walls housing flood lights at either end. Large bells hang ominously from each corner of the set, and a large pan is set at the end of the table, bubbling above a burning flame.

Out of the cast who did the online reading, only Tim Pritchett as John remains. Heledd Gwynn takes on the titular role and her performance is mesmerising from the moment the lights go up on stage. Athletic and balletic, she contorts her body in all manner of shapes as John watches on, stating to Christine that the lady of the house has obviously lost her mind. Julie however is not a madwoman, but a heady mixture of contradictions. It is unsettling watching her as she sways from her desperate yearning to be with John, a man deemed to be beneath her, and her reliance on the shackles that bind her to her current lifestyle of the wealthy classes.

Rather than being abandoned by her fiancé, this Miss Julie’s world has been turned upside down as she has lost her man in the carnage of the trenches. She is one of the surplus women, destined to become a spinster. Her father’s servant John has lost a leg, we assume in the war, but it transpires that it was caused by a shooting accident in his youth. It’s not just John who is bearing scars of the past, Christine the cook is also dealing with her own loss; the grief she feels for her dead husband is palpable.

‘What do you know about magnificence?’

John is tired of being working-class, taking his orders from people who are no better than him. He aspires to better things, but this is a simple world of going to chapel, knowing your place and where having aspirations should be met with caution. John may appear to have certain limitations, but he will not let the loss of a limb stop him from pursuing a life away from servitude. He is Julie’s opposite in several ways. John and Julie continually bait and stalk each other throughout the play, but both give focused and assured performances maintaining a sizzling level of tension throughout. We know how the original story pans out, but maybe this time Julie will fathom out what she really wants.

Images as per Twitter Stream

Overseeing all the action is Christine, played by Catrin Aaron. All three actors remain on the stage throughout the play, and as she sleepwalks around the perimeter of the stage, the atmosphere becomes more claustrophobic. The old ways are being swept away and for her this is a heavy burden to bear. Her sudden outburst is heartfelt, and suddenly you realise that from the moment the play begins, to when she says to John “what do you know about magnificence?” she is the one who has the most tragic life of them all.

Whilst this isn’t radically different to the original play, it was thoroughly enjoyable to watch and to look through the eyes of a world that was on the cusp of change. Often disabled characters in classic plays are to be pitied or ridiculed, but Kaite O’Reilly has created an opportunity to give a voice to those who are overlooked or treated with contempt, and she has given them an inner strength. Setting it in a period where many men came back from the war supporting life changing injuries opened a conversation about how people with disabilities are treated, both then and now.

Missing Julie by Kaite O'Reilly

Theatr Clwyd - Emlyn Williams Theatre from 21 September until 9 October.

Running time 75 mins

Julie: Heledd Gwynn

Christine: Catrin Aaron

John: Tim Pritchett