Writer Patrick Marber knocked out After Miss Julie for the BBC 20 years ago. It’s a version of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie but you’d be hard pressed to see any difference other than when it’s set.
You can’t help but admire his audacity. The slight changes that have been made to the plot are no more than a director would choose to do.
Marber updated the story, made it a bit racier, added a strong undercurrent of sadomasochism and moved the location from Sweden to the Home Counties to create his “new” play.
But it works really well. Miss Julie is back in the theatre and heading to the West End after a brief out of town tour. Last night the tensely plotted Theatre Royal Bath production opened at Milton Keynes Theatre and it proved cracking entertainment
Just 80 minutes long, without an interval, this is a drama focused around two main characters and the games they play. It’s a mating ritual being danced by an unlikely coupling of a black widow spider and a scorpion and you know that the outcome isn’t going to be good for one of them.
World War Two is over and the country, or at least this little part of it just outside London, is celebrating Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 General Election.
Emotions are running high. The old class structure is being swept aside along with Churchill and the Tory elite. Britain has emerged victorious from war and the country is on the bring of huge change where only the strong will survive.
At the estate of a Labour peer the workers are celebrating, joined by the daughter of the house, Miss Julie. The first thing you’re aware of is how Conservative this spoilt little rich girl is, treating staff like slaves and demanding constant attention and adulation from the lower ranks.
Helen George, one of TV’s favourite midwives, makes a fascinating “heroine.” Part psychopath, part dominatrix, this little Miss Whiplash is all bravado and balls who is out to shock and get her own way. Was I wrong in picking up that perhaps being “daddy’s special girl” had resulted in a damaged childhood?
Because there’s something seriously amiss with this lovely lady (Julie, not the ravishing Helen).
We meet her dog, Emily (cue lots of aahs from the audience. A real live dog is always a crowd-pleaser) and then learn that Julie wants to give the poor mutt an elixir to force it to abort her puppies.
And, ever the animal lover, I won’t reveal what she does to her favourite canary (you don’t know whether to laugh or cry)
She has a pretty shocking sadistic side. We discover that her fiance dumped her after being thrashed with a whip in the stables, and she scares the life out of her father’s valet, John (Richard Flood, currently boosting daytime viewing in the BBC’s cop drama, Red Rocks).
But John, ever the chancer, sees an opportunity and leaps into bed with it. He’s supposed to be engaged to the rather dowdy cook, Christine (a thankless role for Amy Cudden who has little to do other than to scold) but offers little resistance when seduced by a impulsive Julie.
Post coital coupling the dynamics between John and Julie change completely. She thrusts a hand into John’s trousers and squeezes hard, snarling at her conquest. It’s a riveting performance by Helen George who captures both Julie’s innocence and vulnerability and her undoubted cruelty.
The smouldering Flood, for his part, shines his master’s shoes to a professional gleam, is suitably deferential and simmers with contempt for the upper classes.
In the early stages he calls Julie’s bluff, grabs her by the ankles and strokes her leg sensuously as she writhes on the kitchen table. I swear all the women in the audience leaned forward, ever so slightly, their hearts and pulses racing. Was he going to have her on the kitchen table?
Snatches of conversation reveal a callousness on both sides. Their behaviour is lusty, more like a pair of animals than a couple starting an illicit affair. But, of course it’s not. Far from it.
There are elements of Lady Chatterley with the mistress of the house enjoying a bit of rough with the hired help but the arrogant, assured John, is far from a victim.
There are real fireworks between George and Flood although I don’t think the ambitious video backcloth of the couple grinding on the dancefloor really works (or the execution scene). Both give very physical performances with neither afraid of grappling the other.
This is an intense, occasionally shocking, but thoroughly absorbing production and far more accessible than its birth mother. Strindberg would have approved.
After Miss Julie plays at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.
After Miss Julie
Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie is a lusty, tensely-plotted and absorbing play with strong performances from Helen George and Richard Flood.