Miss Julie (Reading, Arts Centre)

Following their brilliant take on Harold Pinter‘s The Dumb Waiter last July, I had high hopes for this new production of Miss Julie by fledgling company, Reading Repertory Theatre.

August Strindberg‘s 1888 classic is a beautiful study of class, society and lust that continues to inspire and move audiences around the world, notably in the touring South African piece Mies Julie, currently at Riverside Studios in London, and also recently at Manchester’s Royal Exchange when Maxine Peake took the title role this time last year.

This is certainly a play which attracts an audience, and it has the potential to be powerful and heart-wrenching. Unfortunately Reading Rep, under the artistic direction of Paul Stacey, who directs and adapts here, struggles to create an engaging piece of theatre. This production leaves a lot to be desired.

A high impact, rhythmic opening sequence of movement/dance immediately grabs the audience’s attention, and staging in the round helps to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. But Stacey’s adaptation is clunky, and the pace flattens as the dialogue gets under way.

The tension and chemistry between the three characters – Julie, daughter to the master of the house; Jean, her father’s manservant; and Christine, the cook and Jean’s fiancee – is crucial to focus on in any version of the play, as is the central theme of the difficulties of class structure as played out between them. As Julie, Valene Kane has a strong stage presence as Julie, and her physical work is sometimes excellent, as she taunts and dances around the raised square stage.

But the relationship between her and Jamie Champion‘s Jean is not believable in the slightest – and the one between Jean and Christine (Kate Gilbert) fares little better. Though both actors show moments of promise, their interchange feels flat and many of Strindberg’s key questions about social status are played down as a result.

The context of the production is also muddled. Some modern language is thrown in, and the costumes are vaguely modern dress, which leaves me wondering when or where it’s set, and why this isn’t clear. In some ways, this works effectively in focusing on the characters and putting them at the centre of the action, but not knowing what kind of world or period they’re living in makes engaging with the deeper themes much harder.