Friday, 28 September 2012

Mademoiselle Julie

Barbican theatre, 24 September 2012
Mlle Julie. From the Barbican website.
A surreal production of Strindberg's drama highlights the hysteria while downplaying its underlying tragedy.

Two glamorous women, one older and supposedly more powerful, struggle for the heart of a ruggedly handsome, cynically poetic menial. This struggle takes the form of lengthy dialogues in cool white interiors, focussing on the nature of love, class and death. Jump cuts disorient the viewer, as does the tendency of characters to switch from screaming hysteria to calm philosophising. A white rabbit appears occasionally, along with other surreal touches. And very little happens.
If I add that Juliette Binoche is the lead character, surely I’m not being fanciful to think this is Strindberg reinterpreted as a French period Buñuel film.
The rabbit. Adding a touch of surrealism from Wonderland to Donnie Darko.
And now retrofitted to Strindberg.
When this drama was premiered over a century ago, it was in the vanguard of the Naturalist Movement, but Strindberg went on to create intensely dreamlike works, and Fisbach’s production at the Barbican suggests that the best way to experience Miss Julie is in the light of these future developments.
The staging emphasises the sense of paralysis that the three characters suffer from, especially Julie. It’s as if they were in a dream, with action taking place around them, while they feel detached and unable to influence events.
Whether the author wanted this effect or not, I think the production does make sense of the work, but by doing so restricts its ambitions. If the social situation were filled in, it is possible for the drama to seem as if it is making pertinent comments about the role of class, or gender, in restricting opportunities, either for Jean or for Julie respectively.
But I feel Fisbach is right to resist the temptation to fill out the drama – those social aspects, once shocking, are now dated. Let us hope nobody still needs to be told that women and servants are people too.
Unfortunately, once stripped of this irrelevant ‘relevance’, Miss Julie can seem fairly thin stuff. For people who enjoy a dreamlike atmosphere, this production is enjoyable; for people wanting a little more, I found it hard to care enough about these people to sympathise with their paralysis.
A stronger realisation of the text could make more of the way our fears and anxieties trap us, even to fatal results.
It is an odd characteristic of our time that many of us seem happy to witness surrealism and ask for nothing more, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect productions of the father surrealist, Strindberg, to focus on anything else.
The cast were excellent, though I find it hard to assess acting in a dream.

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