An Act of Defiance and Destruction

AFTER MISS JULIE, a version of Strindberg's Miss Julie by Patrick Marber, directed by Anthony Banks, with Helen George, Theatre Royal, Brighton, Monday 4 July, 7.45pm.

I guess it's not possible to write anything, especially a review, without thinking about current events, the referendum. And it's odd, watching a European play from more than 100 years ago, with British television additions and accretions from about 20 years ago, at the precise moment (give or take a week) of the vote to leave Europe behind.

Strindberg is linked, pretty universally, to the advent of naturalism, along with Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen. He's also accused, rightly or wrongly, of misogyny. But for me, he's a writer of the theatre who confronted the reality of what theatre actually was and what it could accomplish.

The Nineteenth Century was the era of the big novel, Balzac, Dickens, Victor Hugo. It was all about encompassing everything. Get it all in, top to bottom. The whole grand sweep. Horizon to horizon. Wagner was up to the same thing. Megalomania. An art of everything that could change the world. Big sets, big music, big chorus. The stage was an infinite space that could accommodate gods, just as it had in classical times.

Strindberg, among others, saw that the theatre was in fact nothing of the sort. It was just a space which some people could walk around on while other people watched. The gods no longer moved among us.

The choice was pretty stark. Get another career or come up with a way to make the theatre work.

You've got your space, you've got your actors, you've got your audience (hopefully) what you need now is some conflict. And you need the conflict to be on the stage, right in front of the audience.

I think the reason that Miss Julie has lasted, is performed so often, is that the conflict is so perfect, so universal.

The woman, Miss Julie, is an aristocrat and has power. But she's also a woman and is powerless. The man, Jean, is a servant, and is powerless, but is a man therefore has power. They are evenly matched. Who will win?

This version, by Patrick Marber, according to the programme, was first developed for the BBC in 1995, and then again for the stage in 2003. Why revive it now? Why not just do the original play?

1995 was the fag end of a Tory government, John Major limping to historic defeat two years later, and updating the play to 1945 and drawing attention to an earlier Labour triumph had to be at least a part of the reason.

But as that devoutly to be wished Labour government is now mired in ignominy (Chillcot imminent) and another Tory government does its best pantomime villain impersonation, everyone desperately awaiting Act 3 of what is looking like a 5 Act tragedy, what's left of what was, I'm sure, a well meaning make over (and I'm talking about the play now), looks like a terrible misjudgement.

It's impossible to contemplate soap opera in an historical setting without, and you can try as hard as you like not to, thinking of Downton Abbey. This version predates that megalith but prefigures a storyline. (Did Downton steal it? Perish the thought!)

The chauffeur has it off with the daughter of the big house. Sorry, spoilers. (Surely everyone knows the story of Miss Julie. Mmm... bit of a theatre snob, aren't you?)
Television, or film for that matter, wasn't invented when Strindberg wrote Miss Julie and, as with other naturalistic writers from this period, it's easy to project our own dramatic assumptions, developed over a century of technological advancement, backwards onto their work.

Strindberg's genius was to make these characters stand for something beyond themselves as well as being real, flesh and blood. They are at once larger than life as well as intensely alive.

There is much that is excellent about television but larger that life it is not. Whatever the brand of soap (horror soap - The Walking Dead, fantasy soap - Game of Thrones, glossy soap - Dallas, historical soap - you know who) the basic rules are the same - multiple plot lines and main characters, all of equal importance, and infinite variations on the 'hate/love/like/dislike/want to get one over my wife/husband/children/neighbours/workmates' etc. etc.

The question is never 'what do I think?' but always and forever, 'what do I feel?' (Soap opera was originally a species of advertising. The first rule of advertising is: don't think too hard about it.)

To the point: the Nineteenth Century was a time of big thinking, big empires, big scientific advances. This kind of thing was crushing to the average person. Society had rules which were ruthlessly enforced. To be sacked without a reference could be a death sentence. So many artists and thinkers fought against the prison which was daily life. But at least everyone knew who the enemy was.

Ok, I'll say it. This version has made a classic play into a fairly inferior version of Upstairs Downstairs. The intense battle which takes place in Miss Julie is essentially a struggle of the intellect. These people knew exactly what they were doing and what was at stake.

The characters in After Miss Julie have no idea what they are doing, what is at stake, or even what day it is.

The original ending is an act of defiance and destruction, rather than despair. The ending in the updated version seems more an act of confusion committed by actors who really don't believe in what they're doing.

When characters in television dramas are trapped inside a cage of feeling, a prison of their own making, it doesn't seem to matter, they were never intended to fulfil a higher purpose. Birds bred in captivity will die in the wild.

But when characters we are accustomed to seeing as thinking, acting, influencing, in freedom, according to their own lights, are reduced, chained, locked in the trap of feeling, the only response really is despair.

So much of Nineteenth Century social strictures, which Strindberg railed against, are happily consigned to history. But we still have employers and employees, and gender inequality is still a reality.

So much apparent freedom, so much wealth, so much self expression, so little intelligent interaction. In the way that online social networks trap users in their own profiles, theatre, art generally, which gives precedence to feeling over thought, can never be truly interactive or social. It becomes an expression of me first, mine above yours, sentiment above empathy.

This play was, unintentionally, very instructive, a very good example of how not to update a classic.

Paul Corcoran