Miss Julie is at The Studio @ The Festival theatre Edinburgh for 4 days (Wednesday 6th to Saturday 9th March), and this story of passion and the breaking down of social class barriers is for a few reasons just not coming together properly for me.
I think my biggest problem is that this story of the daughter of a titled family spending time talking about everything with a well-educated and well-travelled man-servant written originally by Swedish playwright August Strindberg in 1888 is not surviving too well the new setting to Scotland in the midst of the General Strike that writer Zinnie Harris and director Shilpa T-Hyland have transposed everything to in their adaptation of this work. Here, instead of the gentile society of the 1880s, we are in the mid 1920s (3 May 1926 to 12 May 1926 if sticking to the actual General Strike period) and a Europe not yet even 10 years after the devastation of “The War”. Oddly, there are no references to “The War” which did much to create the political and class-conflict situations at its end. When did our well-travelled man-servant get his opportunities? So many unanswered questions here.
Like the original work, our events take place on a Midsummer’s evening, a Saturday as Christine is going to Church on the Sunday here. This normality is set against the strikers partying outside after being on strike for 9 weeks and sure that they will win their demands for better pay and conditions. Midsummer would of course be taking us into June and after the general strike ended. There are however some interesting elements that come out of this adaptation by Zinnie Harris as our trio consisting of Miss Julie (Hiftu Quasem), John (Lorn Macdonald) and Christine (Helen Mackay) interact with each other and oddly, given the title of the work, so much of this story for me is coming from John and fellow servant Christine who is sleeping in the kitchen when our main story with “Miss Julie” really starts. Here, Lorn Macdonald is excellent as the outwardly rebellious socialist John and so much of what Lorn adds to this script and his character is not in words, but body language. Helen Mackay as Christine is a perfect counter-balance here to John’s views opting for a life of safety over social rebellion, and Christine also brings so much depth to her character with body language and expressions. John and Helen are a good on-stage partnership.
With apologies here to Hiftu Quasem, I have for some reason never taken to her role as “Miss Julie” and a lot of that for me is that there is little about how “Miss Julie” is written that makes me believe this person is the daughter of a Scottish Laird; that immediate air of perceived superiority through class is not there in any manner, only in words, and maybe part of the problem is the transposition of characters from their original settings. Here, Hiftu Quasem does her best, but perhaps giving us more depth into the very troubled young woman that lies beneath the surface of Miss Julie rather than so often used class stereotypes would have given us as an audience a person to really care about.
This production is roughly 90 minutes in length with no interval and it does cover a lot of issues in this time, but of course time means that we are only touching on them at the surface and not exploring them too deeply, but the issues of class distinctions and privileges against us all being born the same human beings inside, clothes making the man, and knowing one’s place in society of course all rear their heads here.
So much of this story though revolves around John and not Julie, and Lorn Macdonald is so good here in moving from the almost happy go lucky John, to a post-sex with Julie man who is now revealed as a deeply unpleasant person. This element of the story in which John now assumes “status superiority” over Miss Julie simply because they have now been to bed together is an issue as relevant today as in our story time line and a deeply disturbing facet to this story that is never really developed to its full potential. Not letting the audience see our bedroom scene though was the right move here by Zinnie Harris as we only as an audience needed to know, not to witness.
There is a very dark psychological story running underneath this top layer of striking workers and so many elements to the many demons in Miss Julie’s childhood that lead her to her eventual actions that, for me, needed explored at the expense of other elements here. Miss Julie may be the title of this work, but I left feeling that I had never got to really know Miss Julie and that is a pity as there is a person of real interest here. Oddly, I left the theatre wanting to see this production with the two female roles switched and Hiftu Quasem playing Christine with Helen Mackay as Julie and I think that the different approach that each could bring to these roles would give Lorn Macdonald interesting new layers of dynamics to play against his role as John.
Review by Tom King