Here and Now: ‘Julie’ is a dramatic hour of naturalist power

Britta Hanson

How do you update a play that was itself revolutionary?

This is the task the one-hour production of After Miss Julie sets for itself: adapting August Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie from its original setting in late 19th-century Sweden and resetting it in 1945 England.Both plays tell the story of a young socialite, Miss Julie, who becomes sexually entangled with an ambitious servant in the aftermath of a party.

Miss Julie was an experiment in naturalism, meaning it created an unexaggerated, realistic reflection of middle-class life. In the same unstudied vein, Strindberg’s original script includes lengthy pauses in the action. In these lulls, the servant girl (Zoë Goslin) may light a cigarette or finish cooking a kidney, but as Strindberg’s note in the script indicates, “This pantomime should be played as though the actress were really alone. Consequently she must, whenever necessary, turn her back to the audience and not look into the auditorium; nor should she hurry the action as though she feared the audience were getting impatient.”

After Miss Julie staunchly maintains these pauses, with mixed results. One was reminded of a scene in the film Umberto D., in which the camera simply watches a servant girl make preparations for breakfast. But unlike that scene, there was not quite enough subtle change in perspective or action to maintain the attention of the audience. Goslin does an admirable job of carrying these scenes, most of which she performs alone, but there is only so much she can do. There is a fine line between mesmerizing and soporific, and these scenes walked that line a little too precariously.

Regardless of the play’s structural defects, Ellie Bensinger was captivating as Miss Julie. Sheathed in a girlish white dress offset by a green ribbon (a tribute to the meticulous costume design), her carefully spun persona, a dangerous mixture of innocence and roguery, is soon torn apart by the events she herself brings about.

Robin Christiansen’s John was a more mixed interpretation, perhaps because the contours of his character were more difficult to navigate. While Christiansen’s anger did flare when called for, and some of his quips stung viciously, neither trait stayed long enough to give him the depth needed to match, and to overcome, Julie’s taunting and inconstancy.

But even with the uneasy questions of adaptation, interpretation and the occasionally incongruent characters, this was nevertheless a deeply felt, affecting performance. Director Rebecca Munley successfully navigated a difficult script, keeping their passionate fights taut and understated where they could easily become melodramatic. She showed the power that even a short, one-hour play can hold – whether it be from 1888, 1945 or 2011.

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