Belvoir St Theatre, August 28
Known for his contemporary rewrites of classical plays, Simon Stone’s radical 2011 adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was devastatingly good and has enjoyed considerable success in Europe.
His adaptation of Miss Julie, which is billed as being “by Simon Stone after August Strindberg”, is less persuasive – though powerfully performed.
Written in 1888, Strindberg’s drama about class and sexual power – examined through the story of the daughter of a Swedish count sleeping with one of his servants – was deemed so shocking it was banned in Sweden for years.
Updating the action to present-day Sydney, Stone retains the key elements of Strindberg’s plot but where the original play unfolded over one claustrophobic act, Stone adds an interval and sets the second act in a motel.
He has also changed the original ending, which had Miss Julie taking the “honourable” way out (Strindberg’s word in his foreword) and leaving the stage with a razor given her by Jean to commit suicide.
Miss Julie’s father is now a high-profile politician in the running to become Prime Minister. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his chauffeur and security guard with a gun on his hip. As in the original, Jean’s fiancée Christine (Blazey Best) is the housekeeper and cook.
Though class certainly exists in Australia – no matter how much we might like to deny it – it doesn’t trap people in the same way that it did in Strindberg’s day. And though rich people employ servants, the situation doesn’t resonate with the same widespread recognition.
So, in order to up the ante Stone has made Miss Julie 16 instead of 25, while Jean who was 30 in the original is here closer to 40.
After being discovered in a car with a boy and drugs, Julie has been grounded. Her absent father has charged Jean and Christine with looking after her. On this particular night, Jean has had to physically drag her out of a party. Now here she is in skimpy baby doll PJs (costumes by Tess Schofield) insisting he stay with her while she eats pizza.
Directed by Leticia Caceres, this Belvoir production is impressively staged. Set designer Robert Cousins creates a gleaming white, minimalist kitchen for the first act where Christine stands beneath a portrait of Julie cooking a risotto as the audience enters the auditorium, while second act takes place in a non-descript motel.
The sharp, strident chords of music by The Sweats that open and close the play help establish an unsettling mood.
The age difference between Jean and Julie certainly brings a different edge to the play. Watching him allow her to seduce him and then plan to use her as a way to a better life does feel shockingly grubby – wince-makingly so when 20-year old Taylor Ferguson (who looks convincingly younger) takes retainers out of her mouth before she kisses him.
The central problem of the adaptation is that it never feels believable that the Jean of Stone’s version would work for such a family. Cowell gives a very convincing portrayal of a gruff, lumbering, mono-tonal, Aussie bloke desperate to join “the secret club” as he puts it. But you can more readily imagine him working for a heavyweight in the Cross than for a leading politician.
Surely a wealthy businessman turned politician would employ someone more personable? And would he really leave such a thuggish man to look after his daughter?
Strindberg’s Jean was the son of a labourer but has “educated himself towards becoming a gentleman” and “has a sense of beauty” (Strindberg’s foreword again). He also has some charisma. Cowell’s Jean is such a charmless character it’s hard to believe Julie would fall for him – even as a means of escape or to get back at her father.
As for him being a former sommelier in London, it beggars belief. Cowell even pronounces the word wrong – which rings true for the character, but not for someone who really has worked as one.
Though the second act verges on soap opera, the production is powerfully performed. Cowell is a visceral, dangerous presence, while Best gives a fine performance as the mature, practical, pragmatic Christine who is prepared to stand by her man.
Ferguson makes a remarkable stage debut as the troubled Julie: a poor little rich girl, on the verge of womanhood, fast discovering her sexual power. Imperious one minute, throwing a childish tantrum the next, she captures the depth of the character’s loneliness and her sense of abandonment in a brave performance.
But where Strindberg’s Miss Julie willfully degrades herself, “trying to behave like the common people” as Jean puts it when she attends the servants’ party and insists he dance with her in front of everyone, here you feel Julie is so young and lost she just needs someone to love her and doesn’t quite realise what she is unleashing.
Ferguson’s raw, exposed emotion at the end certainly left me feeling churned up but the adaptation itself doesn’t totally convince.
There is plenty to be examined around the idea of class and ambition in contemporary Sydney but transposing Strindberg’s play from 19th century Sweden isn’t the most effective way of addressing it, while making Julie 16 subtly changes what Strindberg was saying about strong women who use sex for power.
Miss Julie runs at Belvoir St Theatre until October 8
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 1