Miss Julie @ Hope Mill - An Age-Old Story of Sex & Power
The modest entrance to Hope Mill Theatre is flanked with servants in period dress; a violinist plays us into the warehouse studio space. We join the cast in the kitchen of a stately home during Midsummer festivities. This three-hand show, confined to a single room, dives deep into the seedy underbelly of an 'upstairs-downstairs' society. Elysium Theatre Company’s production adheres to the period of the piece, whilst engaging in the timeless battle between servant and master, man and woman.
The eponymous heroine, Miss Julie, leads the show as she toys with her power and dangles her sexuality within seemingly easy reach. She begins cruel, arrogant, and charmingly sassy. The cast have mastered the art of crafting likeable performances from intrinsically unlikeable characters. Nowhere is this more acute than in Danny Solomon's portrayal of "humble" John. His familiar North-Eastern accent, alongside his overt regard for proper manners, portray a down-to-earth, sympathetic servant. Or so it seems…
Tellingly, power and status spin on a single turning point: sex. This is a play of two halves; a tragic fall; a harsh reminder that men always come out on top.
The swarm of supernumeraries who flood the stage, to mask the join between the play's two halves, feel a little unrefined. This scene is utterly at odds with the carefully balanced power play that the leading trio build. But it seems the rabble are a necessary placeholder, giving Julie and John the time to consummate her undoing.
The latter half of the show presents the blooming of a deeply abusive relationship. At times, Julie’s discomfort can be unpleasant to watch, owing to the profound realism of Alice Frankham’s performance.
Having said that, for all its naturalistic set design and intricate costumes, by Louis Price, this production does rather revel in melodrama. Frankham, in the title role, rides an exhausting rollercoaster of emotions. Every ounce of feeling is impeccably heartfelt and utterly convincing, but the shifts in her passionate address are frenetic. In a play that grapples with the class divide, gender divide and 'us vs them' throughout, Frankham is tasked with a bi-polar battle within herself. She plays the woman scorned with marvellous bitterness, knocking back glasses of red wine and telling the story of her man-hating mother. Yet, in a touching moment of naivety, we watch Frankham craft an idyllic picture of her redemption overseas before it, and her words, begin to slip away.
Amidst the tornado of emotions, Lois Mackie plays the stoic, principled Christine. In her short time on the stage, she is commanding. Indeed, Christine is the only character we are taught to respect. In-keeping with the play’s shift, Mackie’s character begins with lowly, friendly modesty, which makes her fiery righteousness all the more fervent.
Strindberg's script exclaims some choice moments of political clarity, alongside some other rather sweeping generalisations. From a 21st-century perspective, the audience can't help but snigger at a few outrageous claims.
Indeed the company breathe a sick sense of comedy into these dry servants quarters of 19th-century Sweden. Taking pleasure in every swing he throws at Miss Julie, Solomon plays an excellent baddie. His blasé attitude becomes increasingly machiavellian as the evening goes on. I only wish this sinister edge were held until the very end. A final show of remorse, fear at his Lordship’s homecoming, is ill-fitting for the role that Solomon has crafted throughout.
Although neither lead character is written to be totally agreeable, this play is served as a quietly man-hating piece. Yet, it is the only man on stage who is still afforded the laughs; meanwhile Miss Julie is left to fret, flap and unravel each night. The production is sympathetic, yet offers no solution to its timeless power struggle.
Miss Julie is built on a pertinent political message, forsaking any real plot progression. Through no fault of the cast, there is a growing sense of restlessness amongst the audience as Strindberg’s script crawls toward an end. Elysium Theatre Company serve up passion and find the truth from a rather unnaturally written dialogue. It’s refreshing to see modern theatre that doesn’t feel obliged to force outrageousness upon an audience. Instead, Elysium deliver their powerful message with classical poise.
Miss Julie plays at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until 22nd June. For tickets and more information, visit the Hope Mill website.