Reviewed by Felix Rackow.
The enduring popularity of Strindberg’s Miss Julie seems to be particularly felt at present, with a notable revival at the National Theatre in London just last year. That version of the play was updated for a modern audience, and this version, directed by Shilpa T-Hyland and ending a short tour at Edinburgh’s Studio Theatre is similarly adapted, this time by Zinnie Harris, who grounds the classic in 1920s Scotland amid the General Strike which affected the entirety of the UK. Jen McGinley’s set draws the audience in even before the performance begins, as does Hyland’s decision to place the brilliant Helen Mackay, playing Christine, visibly on stage as we enter, establishing firmly her social position before any words have even been said. The set itself also establishes the sense of social hierarchy which is so key to the plot, with the supposed grandeur of the house above contrasting with the claustrophobia of the kitchen amidst the visible servant bells and domestic utensils.
After a slightly slow start, the vast majority of the acting in this three-hander is focussed and fast-paced, particularly during the brief moments when all three characters appear at the same time, when John’s mixed loyalties are fascinating to observe. As John, Lorn Macdonald is for most part enthralling, although at a couple of moments seems perhaps to lack total authenticity. Macdonald plays John’s youthful masculinity well, however it is the moments of vulnerability where he is at his best. Similarly, Hiftu Quasem is sincere and often compelling as the title role, playing a Julie who entices confidently but is at the same time unsure of herself and of what she wants. It is definitely Mackay, however, who stands out, portraying a Christine whose unwavering emotional intelligence and composure resonates with the audience far more than the unpredictability and irresponsibility of the other two characters. It would be easy to play Christine as angry and bitter, but Mackay’s earnest characterisation suggests something far deeper than this that resounds even after the curtain has come down.
Harris’ adaptation for the majority of the evening serves to give the play a confident new life, finding a voice which not only reflects 1920s struggles but highlights themes which are still relevant today. Despite this, there are a few moments which seem perhaps to be slightly miscalculated; particularly the repeated throwing of a wet cloth at Julie, which seems out of place somehow in a script which at all other times conveys convincingly the passions of the individuals involved. This adaptation, then, for the most part enthrals, and at just over an hour and a half makes for a pacey and thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Miss Julie runs at The Studio until Saturday 9th March 2019.