Friday 20 April 2018

Stage: Smokin' hot Strindberg and a strange act of love

Lisa Dwyer Hogg, who stars as Miss Julie, pictured with Sam O'Mahony in The Mariner at The Gate
Lisa Dwyer Hogg, who stars as Miss Julie, pictured with Sam O'Mahony in The Mariner at The Gate

Maggie Armstrong

'Tell me what I am!" "A f**k." So says the chauffeur John to the lady of the house, Miss Julie, soon after he takes her virginity.

That was a relief. I had been concerned August Strindberg's 1888 tragedy of class-crossed lovers might have dated. A tragedy, that is, about a rich woman with nothing to live for, crying about how hard it is to be rich. But in a smoky (at least full of stage ciggies) new version of Miss Julie, namely After Miss Julie, from Belfast's Prime Cut Productions, desire and cruelty are alive and well. Heartache? Plus ça change.

In this claustrophobic one-act piece of theatrical upset, the count's daughter Miss Julie (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) has a liaison with the low-status John (Ciaran McMenamin) who is due to be wed to jilted cook Christine (Pauline Hutton). The suicidal Miss Julie plans to run away to New York with John and open a bar, but it all goes wrong.

Contemporary? Sadly, yes. In the sorry age of internet dating and the extended single years, people will find all too much to relate to. In life and in the play, everyone is careless. Lust goes with cruelty. People are as quickly discarded as 'matched'. The difference in the play is that the characters speak their minds.

"You're a servant's slut," John states.

"Didn't you love me, at least in bed?" Julie cries. "Do I look ugly?"

"You're not at your best," he replies, raising an uncomfortable laugh among the audience at the first preview at the Project Arts Centre (it will tour nationally).

Amid the spilt alcohol, floral dresses and nostalgic music, you realise how young they are. Miss Julie is 25 and her lover is 30. Their twisted invective is like something a 25 and a 30-year-old would say to each other today, if we ever got off our phones and had it out in person. Now is the chance for an audience full of 25 and 30-year-olds to reclaim this classic.

The production is itself an adaptation of Patrick Marber's respected adaptation, After Miss Julie. Marber (a writer of plays and films Notes on a Scandal and Closer) set his version in London in 1945. This new Irish treatment is set in a Big House in Fermanagh on Victory Day.

In placing the action in Fermanagh, Prime Cut's artistic director Emma Jordan wanted to explore the "isolation" felt by the Anglo-Irish. Coincidentally, Liv Ullman directed a film set in Fermanagh casting Colin Farrell as John. But Jordan hasn't seen it. "There's no such thing as an original idea in art," she laughs. Miss Julie is a play the Belfast actor-turned-director has a complex relationship with.

"At school, we studied Miss Julie and I absolutely loved it. But I didn't understand it. Strindberg's pretty difficult, as a feminist," she says, referring to the "horrifically misogynist" preface the Swede wrote to the original. That preface contains some weird ideas about people: Miss Julie is a "half-woman", Christine is "a female slave" and John is basically a great guy. "I find it really hard to read because I'm so infuriated by his fear and anger of women," says Jordan, a mum of three girls.

The daughter of a nurse and a lorry driver who went to school in the Falls Road, Jordan found it challenging to direct a play about the downfall of a countess, too. "I understand what class prejudice is," she says. "I mean, I'm a working-class woman."

"I'm always trying to work it out, why am I doing this?"

She is still turning over the question, but some answers did come when she first read Marber's script. In this more tender and more sexually explicit version, Jordan felt "empathy" with the characters. "It's the deep psychological excavation that really draws me."

How is it possible for everyone to understand these troubled souls? John is selfish, opportunistic, dishonest, violent and, ultimately, foul, as he drives his mistress to (spoiler alert!) end her life. What does Miss Julie see in John? "He loves her," says Jordan.

How does he show it? "He hands her a razor," says the director. "And that's what she wants. It's an act of love, not an act of destruction. The desire to escape this world, to commit suicide, we're really, really frightened of that instinct in human beings, it's really treacherous territory. But some people just want to leave the planet. And that is okay, and he understands that. He gets her." In a shaky voice, Jordan adds: "It's awful."

* On that cheerful note, here is another lust-ridden production set in a big farmhouse. Eugene O'Neill, in his Nobel Laureate acceptance speech in 1936 acknowledged the debt he owed to Strindberg. O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten arrives in a co-production between the Theatre Royal, Waterford, and the Geva Theatre, Rochester, New York, playing in Waterford tonight and moving to the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 15-19 March.

After Miss Julie plays at the Project Arts Centre Dublin until March 19 and tours to the Source Arts Centre in Thurles; Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick; Market Place Theatre, Armagh; An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny; ending in the MAC Belfast, March 30 - April 9.

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