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.
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.