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After Miss Julie

The Attic Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is an intimate space which was perfectly suited to Aspect Theatre's latest production, After Miss Julie, directed by Marc Dugmore. Set in the dining room of a servant's house at a country estate, Patrick Marber's one-act play – an update of Strindburg's Miss Julie – explores timeless themes of class and sexuality. Taking place on the evening of Labour's landslide victory in the 1945 general election, coupled with the ‘after effects’ the following morning, the play focuses on the relationship between three characters – Miss Julie (and it is always Miss Julie), the lady of the house; John, the chauffeur to Miss Julie's father; and Christine, a cook and John's partner.

The play starts slowly, with John coming home to Christine after a late night of driving the master of the house to London, and then getting caught up in Miss Julie's night of revelry. From the start there is a natural sense of comfort between the two as they discuss Miss Julie's eccentricities, which have come to a head recently when her engagement was called off by her fiancé. However, their tone swiftly changes when Miss Julie, obviously inebriated, invites herself into their house.

The tension rises slowly and subtly as Miss Julie attempts to coax John into joining her for a dance, with John trying desperately to quell the topic on the basis of the ‘gossip’ that would spread if she was seen drinking and dancing with a lowly servant! However, despite her attempts to be friendly towards her servants, it is very clear that the balance of power lies in her favour; John knew he didn’t have much of a choice when it came to her advances towards him; a fact made very apparent when she idly orders him to change into a different suit. During this particular exchange, there is a clear undercurrent of sexuality, with Miss Julie barely trying to hide her attraction to John despite his initial unwillingness to engage with her, which is equally contrasted by Christine's obvious discomfort.

The three parts were all played with great skill. John Lines portrayed the role of John with intensity and ambiguity, resulting in a definite perception of the audience never quite knowing how honest he was being; overall, he came across as manipulative, yet not malicious. In contrast, Katherine Parker-Jones played Miss Julie with an honesty, vulnerability, and erratic edge that belied her initial appearance of being in control, making it clear that she was as much a victim of her inability to find her place in the world as anything else. Finally, Lizzie Crow performed Christine with a natural, down-to-earth charm that allowed the audience to empathise with her and feel the pain that the other two characters were causing her.

As the play unfolds, tension builds on two fronts – first, the class tension between Miss Julie and the other two characters, and second, the (obvious) sexual tension between John and Miss Julie. The two themes intertwine to great effect, with it often being impossible to tell which of the two is driving each character at any given time. These powerful, almost ethereal displays of emotion can only be achieved so much by the spoken word; it was the chemistry, body language and interaction between the three actors that breathed life into them and completely ensnared the audience witnessing every exchange.

Unexpectedly, things take a rather sharp turn halfway through the production – when the morning comes, each of the three characters must deal with the fallout from the previous evening, and it is during this that their true colours show. It was here where perfect displays of the opposing elements that it takes to create characters as whole were shown and yet further proof of expert acting and direction; Dugmore had obviously explored these characters and their relationships to each other with great depth.

The limited space was used to great effect to bring the audience into the story, and with very effective pacing; while it was let down slightly by a slow start, this was inherent to the script and served to lay the groundwork for the intensity of the later scenes, ending on an ambiguous note that perfectly encapsulates the show as a whole.

Overall, After Miss Julie was a fascinating and thought-provoking production from a very new company. If this is a sign of things to come, then Aspect Theatre has a bright future ahead.

Review by Nick Johnson, Pulse Productions

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