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Julie review at National Theatre, London – ‘provocative and profound’

Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith
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August Strindberg’s classic, in the hands of Polly Stenham and Carrie Cracknell, updated and enriched, is a piece that pulls in polar directions. It delights and distresses and aggravates all at the same time. It’s not pleasant to watch, doesn’t want to be, nor should it be.

But what it does magnificently, layering up the contradictions and ambivalences of being human, is to pick apart the hypocrisies of the kind of middle-class liberals that might go and see an adaptation of Miss Julie at the National Theatre. 
 
Julie is 30 (again) and the hard partying continues upstairs as Brazilian maid Kristina and her fiance Jean, the family chauffeur, clean up the basement kitchen – a gloriously sleek set by Tom Scutt, with an endless row of white, soft-close cupboards and tastefully exposed concrete. When Kristina leaves, Julie and Jean think their escape is in the other person and they sleep together. 
 
The three main cast members are impressive. Thalissa Teixeira’s Kristina is so cheery at the beginning, scraping her flip flops as she walks knackered across the kitchen she’s tidying, that it’s sad to think what’s in store for her. 
 
There’s a slight unevenness to Eric Kofi Abrefa’s performance as Jean, from the sensible, suited chauffeur trying to climb the class rungs to a slightly whiny fantasist talking about eloping to Cape Verde with Julie. It seems like those two modes don’t stack up. But then humans don’t really stack up.

 

BAFTA winner Vanessa Kirby tops it off supremely. 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.

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. Julie is still traumatised by finding her mother’s dead body, and Kirby’s unravelling is like watching someone decompose on stage.

She’s horrible to Jean, racist even, and betrays Kristina, but Stenham dares us not to dislike her. If we’re such bleeding-heart liberals, shouldn’t our empathy extend to Julie?

Cracknell’s direction is astonishing in its detail – like the way it repeatedly rationalises and then shatters the fantasy of Julie and Jean’s elopement, or deals with Julie’s poor pet finch – 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.

When it’s so full of these tensions and torsions, it’s difficult to know how to process it. 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.

Yes, it’s an incredibly conflicting, irritating, provoking piece of work. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less brilliant.

Fight disrupts performance of Julie at National Theatre

Verdict
Provocative and profound update of Strindberg’s classic with a blinding central performance from Vanessa Kirby
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