BWW Review: MISS JULIE, Jermyn Street Theatre
Directed by Jermyn Street Theatre's own artistic director Tom Littler, Miss Julie is revived in an effortlessly visceral new production.
It's Midsummer's Eve in 1888 Sweden and Julie (Charlotte Hamblin) is on her own at her father's estate. When she decides to join the servants' party, she begins to play flirtatiously with the Earl's manservant Jean (James Sheldon). What started as a naive game on her behalf turns into a cruel and primal relationship between the two.
Louie Whitemore's rural set evokes clear Swedish lines, orderly cluttering the kitchen with jars and pans. She fills the spaces with mementos of a simple life dedicated to serving, and, in line with Strindberg's naturalistic aim, includes a working stove and sink. The characters circle the large table, surrounded by white, recalling the never-darkening sun shining outside.
Littler lets the playwright's silences eat the actors alive, leaving the audience waiting uneasily. He polishes Julie and Jean's attraction, putting it in striking contrast to the homely feeling of the kitchen as well as to Jean and Kristin's (Isabella Urbanowicz) engagement.
As the charming Jean, Sheldon is both charismatic and frightening. His emotional changes are seemingly imperceptible as he switches his character's dark side on and off. Crippled by ambition, cut short by his social status, he does his best to turn the situation to his advantage, trying to use Julie for his schemes.
Refined in his movements and taste - not because of his social class, but by his own choice - his ruthless yearning lands on Julie. Her youthfulness and upbringing are in stark contrast with his, and Hamblin brings a dynamic level to the character. She teases and (sometimes wickedly) mocks Jean, aware of his initial inability to stand up for himself; but when the tables turn emotionally, Hamblin capitulates.
Where Sheldon's Jean is deliberately meticulous and highbrow, Urbanowicz's performance as the modest Kristin is simple but effective. Caring but too unpretentious for her fiancé, she is in many ways in opposition to Julie and even Jean in her devoutness and hard-working attitude. Unlike the other two, she accepts and understands her place. She is given no reasons to change the status quo and willingly welcomes it.
The shadow of social class is ever-present in the play: each and every character is aware of it and either fights it or embodies it. It's bigger than them, and so ingrained in their essences that it's impossible to escape. But it's in Julie's blood to try to overturn the patriarchy just like her mother did, with no effect. Jean strives to better himself, yet flinches when the bell in the kitchen rings. And finally Kristin embraces it.
Littler does a great job in presenting Howard Brenton's compelling adaptation, succeeding in illustrating an unwavering system and how pitiless ambition can be within it.
Photo credit: Keith Pattison