Historical theatre doesn’t always make good contemporary theatre and to speak plainly, this play’s a struggle. It’s rarely been off the stage since its first production in 1889 and various great directors and actors have had a ball getting their teeth into its social agenda, but it’s a hard one for amateurs.
Extremely avant garde in its day for its Darwinian depictions of class and sex struggles, and naturalistic in a brutal way theatrically, it doesn’t have the same impact in the first part of the 21st century. It’s all a bit D H Lawrence on stage but without any empathy for female sexuality.
However, being a three-hander and with only one scene setting, its appeal for small companies is obvious, and RAODS’s actors and production team respond very positively to their brief.
Jo Short, as maid Kristin, is first up and delivers a consistently solid performance. It isn’t as important a role dramatically speaking as the other two but it has to be convincing if the play’s social agenda is to work. Kristin is pragmatic and Jo Short’s delivery is crisp, her body language direct and is just what is required for a servant who knows her place, who knows the weakness of her master and mistress but also knows keeping her mouth shut is what will keep her stomach fed.
Laura Messenger as Julie has probably the most difficult role . As a character she is totally unhinged, unstable, volatile, tormented, yet has to engage the audience’s sympathy. Laura manages this most of the eighty minutes without a break that she is on stage, but occasionally the aristocratic accent slips, her speech inflections become repetitive and she never really finds the heated sexuality which consumes her character.
Alec Sleigh, as Jean, the valet, has a slightly easier role. It is easy to sympathise with the underdog and that is almost literally how he is treated by Miss Julie. This dog knows how to bite, however, and bite he does. His intelligence skewers Miss Julie and he dances round her lightly and evasively.
Director Peter Moore can certainly add this production to his list of successes. Stagecraft is well managed, the choreography is excellent, sound and lighting all good. But, but, but – this play should move the audience and deep down, it doesn’t. This may be because its messages are now taken for granted, but it may be also that there ought to be an enormous erotic pull and you just don’t get that. Instead there was occasional nervous laughter, for instance when the canary was killed (oh, heavy symbolism throughout the text, climbing trees, falling off pillars, escaping through shit and so on) and this isn’t the emotional response Strindberg was seeking.
What did Tuesday’s audience make of it all? It is hard to say but we were fully engaged throughout and this production is certainly worth a night out, if only to feel very glad we live in ‘modern times’.
Future performances: 15-17 June at 7.30.