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Julie at the National Theatre, London – review round-up

Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

Miss Julie is always being performed somewhere, in one form or another. Strindberg’s classic 1888 tale of a fatal love affair between mistress and servant was originally set on a wealthy estate in 19th century Sweden, but it’s been relocated all over the world. Patrick Marber shifted the action to an English country house in 1945. Yael Farber’s Mies Julie transplanted it to post-apartheid South Africa. Liv Ullman’s 2014 film version was set in Northern Ireland.

Polly Stenham’s fresh adaptation, that drops the Miss and is just called Julie, is set in a contemporary London townhouse. Upstairs, Julie, the daughter of a tycoon, is celebrating her 33rd birthday with a rabble of sycophants. Downstairs, her father’s black chauffeur, Jean, tidies up with his Brazilian fiancé Kristina.

Directed by Carrie Cracknell (who earned plaudits for her productions of The Deep Blue Sea [1] and Oil [2]), this National Theatre production stars Vanessa Kirby as Julie, Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean, and Thalissa Teixeira as Kristina. It’s in the Lyttleton Theatre until September.

But what do the critics think of Stenham’s uprooted adaptation? Does Strindberg’s study of social strictures stand up when set in present-day London? Does Cracknell’s production produce the goods in the large Lyttleton?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews

Julie – A Sense of Strindberg

Vanessa Kirby in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

Polly Stenham came to playwriting young. Her first play, That Face, was staged at the Royal Court in 2007 when she was just 20, transferring to the West End in 2008. Her subsequent work – Tusk Tusk, No Quarter, and Hotel – hasn’t reached the same heights. What do the critics think of her modern-day Strindberg?

It “doesn’t make sense,” according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★ [4]). “Strindberg set the play in a world of rigid class distinctions for which Stenham finds no exact equivalent: if today a fat cat’s daughter had sex with a chauffeur, it might lead to chit-chat on social media but would hardly provoke the participants into dreaming of taking flight.”

“It’s hard to get much enthused about this new version by Polly Stenham which attempts to augment the sexual abandon with a frisson of racial tension,” agrees Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★ [5]). “Stenham’s excavation of cultural difference feels curiously cursory – and given a modern metropolitan context in which implicitly anything goes, the vital sense of societal transgression piling in on top of psychological flaws is lacking. It doesn’t dig deep enough, make you care enough.”

“As she has reconceived it, the dramatic stakes are lowered,” concurs Paul Taylor (Independent [6]). “No great taboo is broken here by her having sex with a black chauffeur.”

“Despite promising bold thinking about inequality, racial prejudice, sexual stereotypes and liberal hypocrisy, it proves colourless and slight,” adds Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★ [7]). “There’s an impulse to provoke, but no real sense of danger.”

Most critics agree that Stenham’s updated Strindberg is sub-par. Ann Treneman (Times, ★★ [8]) reckons “there is a notable lack of tension”, Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★ [9]) thinks “the play struggles to make the class transgression feel dangerous,” and Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★ [10]) calls it “a lazy recap of themes and situations Stenham has explored to far more rending effect elsewhere.”

“Quelle surprise, but Polly Stenham – poet laureate of the idle rich – has found more sympathy than most in her take on the posh anti-heroine of Strindberg’s endlessly adapted Miss Julie,” rails Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★ [11]). “There is a lot of stuff about class – and, indeed, race – that simply doesn’t get examined here.”
Not all critics, though. For Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage, ★★★★ [12]), it’s “a sleek, satirical update”, and for Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★ [13]), it’s “an incredibly conflicting, irritating, provoking piece of work” that’s “brilliant” all the same.

“It works its way into the deep tissue of (among other things) trauma, sexism, guilt, class, racism, depression, medication, love, sex and, eventually, gets to some truth of the complexity and hardness of just existing,” concludes Bano.

Julie – Party Time

Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith [14]
Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

Carrie Cracknell, ex-artistic director of the Gate and former associate director at both the Young Vic and the Royal Court, has directed to acclaim in the National’s Lyttleton Theatre before. Her production here of Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea was one of the highlights of 2016. Does having her at the helm help Julie justify its place on stage?

“The crisis in Stenham’s version seems disproportionate to the events,” writes Billington. “Carrie Cracknell’s production and Tom Scutt’s design are similarly overblown. Whatever his misogyny, one of Strindberg’s insights was to realise that his play demanded ‘a small stage and a small auditorium’. Here the play has to occupy a big theatre.”

“Cracknell has gone for a constant atmosphere of hedonism, with throbbing party music, glitter make-up, and entirely too much slithery dancing,” complains Treneman. “Very little feels real on this stage. The multi-tiered birthday cake, handled with all the care of a football, is clearly prettified cardboard. This kitchen smells of nothing at all. Even the drugs that Julie snorts with abandon look make-believe.”

“Cracknell’s production of this 80-minute piece is surprisingly low on sexual tension,” adds Taylor. “It makes some bad misjudgements.”

Most critics are more balanced, though. “Cracknell’s staging is Sunday supplement stylish, with Ann Yee’s choreography a snapshot of excess,” writes Trueman. “But then this is a play about beautiful people and their butterfly lives, and Cracknell knows it.”

“Cracknell’s direction is astonishing in its detail,” says Bano, “but conflicted in its scope. As a whole, Stenham’s adaptation is brilliantly clever, but a lot of the individual lines land strangely, or sound a little naff.”
“Cracknell’s production has a strong look, with Tom Scutt’s design revelling in the contrast between domestic wholesomeness and chaotic decadence,” agrees Hitchings. “Yet it’s oddly inert.”

And Lukowski thinks Cracknell’s production is the show’s saving grace. “Stenham’s empathetic script is in danger of taking the edge out of the tale, but that’s very much compensated for by Carrie Cracknell’s superlative production,” he writes. “Cracknell’s production is viscerally effective where Stenham’s adaptation feels soft focus.”

Julie – Crowning the Occasion

Thalissa Teixeira in Julie. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith


The main draw of the National’s new show, though, is not Polly Stenham’s adaptation of Carrie Cracknell’s direction, it’s the casting of Vanessa Kirby as Julie. A BAFTA-winner for her role as Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown, Kirby has earned praise for her work on both stage and screen. Her last London credit – Helena in Rob Icke’s Almeida production of Uncle Vanya – received universal acclaim.

“Kirby excels at playing this latest addition to the echt (itals) Stenham gallery: the posh lost-soul wild child who is paying the penalties of privilege and personal trauma,” observes Taylor. “Floating around barefoot, she’s brilliant at the accents of off-hand entitlement and those scraps of fashionable knowledge that are like an airily waved fag.”

“Kirby catches perfectly the idea of Julie as a damaged, overgrown child torn between total dependence on others and suspicion that she is seen as a moneybox anyone can shake and rattle,” agrees Billington. “Kirby manages to make her both vindictive and helpless, and when she asks ‘Am I insane?’ it is with genuine pathos.”

“Kirby’s probably too cast to type – cut-glass is her daily bread – but she swings on a sixpence from composure to collapse, and entices our sympathy without letting Julie off the hook,” reasons Trueman. “She’s hateful and pitiable; a woman with everything and nothing at once, robbed of purpose by privilege.”
“Physically her performance is incredibly open, her hands constantly sweeping over her face or chest, climbing on the table in a floaty dress, almost like she’s dancing,” describes Bano. “But, mentally, she is a brick wall. Inscrutable. Her deep, confident voice and gushing manner, even her crying and shouting, are obvious fronts to some roiling psychological turmoil.”

She “capably suggests a vulnerable, abrasive, damaged soul” according to Cavendish, “captures both her hunger for fun and her aching isolation,” according to Hitchings, and puts in “a virtuoso performance” according to Claire Webb (Radio Times, ★★★ [16]).

Most critics reckon the acting is ace across the board, in fact. They all “do sterling work” according to Billington, and “the three main cast members are impressive,” according to Bano.

Not everyone, however. Hitchings reckons there is “a lack of chemistry in the central relationship”. “The passion between Julie and Jean should erupt spectacularly, but there’s no spark,” he writes.

Julie – Is it any good?

Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith


Not particularly, according to most critics. Polly Stenham’s modern-day adaptation has its fans, as does Carrie Cracknell’s stylish production – Trueman and Bano, principally – but most reviews only award the National’s new show a couple of stars.

Kirby is class in the title role, but Stenham’s version is shorn of the social structure that makes Strindberg’s original so arresting, they say, and Cracknell’s direction isn’t subtle or sensitive enough to work around that.