On Monday, I paid the Royal Exchange my second visit in a month, this time for the Swedish playwright August Strindberg's 1888 classic Miss Julie. When I spotted the poster outside with the quote "I can't run away, I can't stay. I can't live, I can't die. Help me", I almost turned heel and legged it, doing my best woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown impression as I have been lately. Still, a stiff gin steeled my nerves for the expected emotional onslaught of the "Naturalistic tragedy" (as my copy of the text states) and a straight-through 1 hour 45 minute performance, and in the end I was glad I made it to my seat at stage level, and stayed there.
Miss Julie tells the tale of a count's daughter falling for her father's valet - a proper upstairs-downstairs affair, emphasised here by a staircase built especially for the production from the first gallery to the ground floor. All the "action" (Strindberg loves a good discourse) takes place in the below-stairs kitchen, decked out with an authentic-looking Scandinavian farmhouse table and benches, rustic sideboards and cold store, and various bits and bobs of galvanised paraphernalia. The house is as much a character as the actual people; the one depicted being a replacement to an original manor burnt down by Miss Julie's mother and being the root cause of both women's madness - and the set design itself appears to allude to this bonkerness, including a most complicated bell with which to summon the servants and a strange enormous UFO-style lampshade with changing colours.
This personification of inanimate objects is a bit of a theme in Naturalism, along with the many examples of nature imagery (such as when Miss Julie is described as a hawk, looking down on the others). The other themes are all doom and gloom, and what struck me most was how much the audience was laughing. I'm pretty certain Strindberg isn't supposed to be comedic - this play, after all, is about unrequited love, class war, madness, sex, death, suicide, more madness, misogyny, Christianity, greed, and even more madness. Not to worry, I'm not one to spoil anyone's fun, and I needed a good chuckle myself, although mine may have been down to star-of-the-show Maxine Peake's similarity on occasion to Queenie from Blackadder and perhaps to Joe Armstrong seemingly relishing the swearwords in his lines just a tad too much. Still, their performances were heartfelt and otherwise impeccable, and the rest of the Strindberg-minimal cast were excellent too. Another strong production from the company.
Miss Julie is on until 12 May. See the Royal Exchange website for full details. Image by Jonathan Keenan.