After Miss Julie
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 17, 2009
After Miss Julie, "a version of Strindberg's Miss Julie" (according to the program) by Patrick Marber, takes place on a country estate outside London on the night of July 26, 1945. The program informs us:
The British Labour Party won their famous "landslide" election victory on this night. The triumph of the Labour Party over Winston Churchill's Conservative Party swept a new government into power with the promise of radical change and reform.
I have no idea why the author of the above note put the word "landslide" in quotes: a landslide it certainly was. Labour gained 239 seats, attaining a solid majority of more than 60% in Parliament. This was an election about transformation.
Miss Julie, by contrast, is a play about decadence and sex; After Miss Julie is also about both of these things, but attempts to be more relevant by also considering the greater social question posed by the power struggle between its two main characters. Trouble is, both of those characters are relentlessly Conservative in the sense that they represent the old social order rather than the presumably less classist one to come; this is true notwithstanding whatever they may say to the contrary. Marber's Miss Julie, as portrayed by Sienna Miller, is a 25-year-old virgin who has been jilted by her fiance, in part because of her sexual forwardness; she spends the entire first part of the play on the prowl, using whatever tricks she can think of and finds necessary to get her father's chauffeur, John, to—sorry to be indelicate here—lay her. John (Jonny Lee Miller), ruled by the British version of machismo and awed always by the autocratic order, is alternately obedient and rough as Miss Julie toys with and seduces him.
The interesting character in the story is neither of these; it is Christine, the cook, who is also John's fiancee. Marin Ireland gives her real weight, showing us a woman who is actually in love but allows her pragmatism and good sense to overrule her heart most of the time. She also lets us see the most important truth about Miss Julie, which is not that she's sexually repressed but rather that she's a dinosaur: a woman who can't figure out what to do with herself in a period when educated, intelligent, ambitious women were finally becoming able to achieve significant positions in British society (Margaret Thatcher was only five years younger than this Miss Julie; she ran for Parliament for the first time in 1950, just five years after this play takes place.) The one indelible image that I left the theatre with was that of Ireland's Christine silently seething as her thoughtless employer kept her from completing her daily work.
The play mostly felt dull and stretched-out to me. Director Mark Brokaw, whose work I generally admire, has made choices that add unnecessary padding to a story that is, at best, very slight. There are long moments when we are watching a character sit by her/himself on stage, waiting, apparently in real time, for the next thing to happen. Brokaw and Marber even have John change his clothes on stage (illogically, since his bedroom has been established as being just a few feet away offstage). Is it so that Jonny Lee Miller can show off his lean physique to the audience? Or just to kill another three minutes of stage time?
The set, by Allen Moyer, fills every inch of the American Airlines Theatre stage with a highly detailed kitchen set, whose utility was hard to understand. Why is the stove so far away from the sink? What is the huge table that dominates the set actually used for? Mark McCullough's lighting is perfectly realistic, which unfortunately makes it hard to see things clearly on the stage throughout much of the play. The two Millers give performances that are all about indicating rather than exploring character: hers feels mannered and coarse, in the style of Bette Davis chewing scenery in one of the sordid melodramas that peppered her career; his is based in a thick and sometimes hard-to-parse accent and a brooding air suited perhaps more to Hamlet than to this fellow. Only Ireland's performance felt convincing to me.
In the end, I wondered—as I do too often after presentations at large nonprofits like Roundabout Theatre Company—why this production had been assembled at all.