The tight directing and frenzied acting in this adaptation of Miss Julie captures the spirit of August Strindberg’s play.
Strindberg’s simmering tale of how Julie (Maxine Peake), a count’s daughter, has a fling with her manservant Jean (Joe Armstrong) originally caused uproar across Europe in the 1880s.
David Eldridge’s fluent and accessible translation and Sarah Francom’s directing adapts the play with the same finesse as their otherwise very different production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea at the Royal Exchange in 2010.
But whereas that play evoked Ibsen’s arch modernity with video projection, this is much sparser and induces Strindberg’s more antithetical and neurotic view of womanhood in patriarchal society.
Tightly directed in a small kitchen, the two leads circle around the table in a dialogue where reconciliation is always a knife’s edge away from recrimination.
There is only one short interlude, in which Jean and Julie both leave the stage to consummate their lust, and this is followed by a long after-hours talk in which plans to persist with the relationship are continuously shirked by contests for power and the projections of emotional inadequacies.
When the off-stage sound effects vanish until morning, the setting is more claustrophobic and only the stage lighting’s semi-perceptible changes indicate a passage of time.
Joe Armstrong’s near-laddish portrayal of Jean makes him the more sympathetic of the two, but Maxine Peake is by far the most arresting in the title role. Her acting here seems initially mannered, but her overtly flounced entrance onto the stage is part of her character’s unease with her pillared position.
Raised by her mother to ‘think and acting like a man,’ yet constrained by societal mores, her skittishness and contradictions seem to border into a form of madness; a suitably irreducible Strindbergian performance.