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Desperately Seeking the Exit

Fräulein Julie

By • West End
WOS Rating:

You could write a book about performances of Miss Julie, probably in recent years the most adapted classic of the modern repertoire, and Katie Mitchell's meticulous, slow-moving new version for the Schaubühne Berlin at the Barbican would merit a substantial chapter.

So, of course, would Patrick Marber's brilliant post-war austerity-era update, and the South African sex wars and land-owning version lately seen at the Riverside Studios. The play's been hi-jacked and syringed with conceptual overload.

Mitchell, abetted by her regular video film collaborator, Leo Warner, has at least done something genuinely different. Sticking with the late 19th century setting period, she's taken the hints on intensified realism in Strindberg's own writings to create a sort of film-with-sound-score-and-stage-effects mélange in a beautifully lit conservatory where the axis of interest moves to the figure of the maid, Kristin, the side-lined gooseberry at the Midsummer Night's mayhem.

This is anti-theatre to the ultimate degree, stalked by camera crews, the performances camouflaged in sound booths, filmic interiors, voice-overs and close-ups: one of the most striking, for example, is when the maid Kristin (Jule Böwe, a really fine and emotionally devastating actress) lies on the floor listening to her fiancé Jean (Tilman Strauß), the valet, and her upper-class mistress Julie (Luise Wolfram) in the room below, making love.

And yet, paradoxically, it creates its own theatre-ness. Often with Mitchell I feel the actors let her down. Here, they are splendid, especially Böwe who carries a world of sighs and pain in every aspect, lit in her kitchen tasks like the figure in a Vermeer painting. We see her chopping up a brain; the canary of Miss Julie comes a lot later.

Little of the text is retained, the uninterrupted 75 minutes - which do not pass quickly - amounting to a Strindbergian tone poem with alienatory devices. Most prominent in these is the downstage table where two brilliant stage managers supply, in full view, sound effects for every slurp, gurgle, plop and footstep of the actors.

It's as though human behaviour has been stretched out to its tiniest and most telling little elements, and this process is reflected in the sad, quiet signals we receive from Böwe's Kristin, who emerges as the primary victim as well as the moral conscience of Strindberg's ever intriguing little masterpiece. I admire what Mitchell's done, and the treatment suits the play, but all enjoyment is strangely perverse.


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