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.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Hedda Gabler

Old Vic, 11 September 2012

A misleading frills and fiddles trailer

A shattering experience, both in the theatre and on reflection afterwards. This is always my experience of Ibsen.
Partly, this is due to technique. He is the supreme exponent of the ‘well made’ five act drama, so popular in the nineteenth century, in which a stove as a piece of scenery in Act One will surely play a more significant role in Act Four, as indeed it does here, with Hedda burning her former lover’s masterpiece, a destruction shockingly equated with burning his child by Thea Elvsted.
But it is also due to his choice of subject. He brings the heroic, the sense that these events are portentous, that they matter, into the drawing room.
Previous dramatists had represented the fate of nations across the stage. Ibsen applied the same approach to the fate of individuals in situations we can all identify with. The amazing thing is that this works.
After we have learned to dislike her, Hedda reveals that her malice and arrogance arise from something terrifying, deep within herself – something that Judge Brack, to whom she has confessed, ascribes to feminine caprice.
This short dialogue , partly elaborated by Friel in his translation, is magnificent; Hedda’s repulsive pettiness is a response to feeling trapped and inadequate to life. Brack’s conventional hedonism is exposed when he is unable to comprehend her problem.
Hedda’s annihilating impulses are consequently first directed at her former lover and his mistress, then more successfully towards herself and her unborn child.
Are these impulses justified, given her sensibility and predicament? We’re drawn to her (or ought to be) even as we contrast her with her only serious rival in the drama, idealistic, single-minded Thea Elvsted.
It is one of Ibsen’s ironies that Hedda is the one described as ‘determined’, when she – and we, if we have eyes and ears – fully realise that the word better describes Thea. Hedda has a stronger sense of the futility of action, and so vacillates, Hamlet-like, until her final, dreadful aesthetically-charged suicide. Thea survives, and will resurrect her child, the ‘beautiful’ last masterpiece of their shared lover.
This final ambiguous situation is marvellously accentuated in Anna Mackmin’s production, entirely impressive apart from one now common misjudgement.Humour is now jarringly played up in Ibsen as much as in the past it was drearily played down, and I wonder if the pendulum will eventually stabilise.
As an aside, I’m massively relieved that the production was neutral on the proto-feminist aspects of Hedda’s situation – why try to relegate this universal drama to a museum piece?
I thought the standout performance was Fenella Woolgar’s Thea. In body language and voice, she absolutely convinced me that she was focussed to the point of hysteria. Sheridan Smith was impressive in the title role, although she was too convincing at its supposedly ‘capricious’ aspect, then almost remedied that through her silent horror when fully realising her situation in the final act.
The supporting cast were faultless. Let’s hope we get to see more of this neglected master.