Patrick Marber has given Miss Julie an arresting English make-over. In Strindberg's 1888 classic, the aristocratic young heroine engages in a dangerous mating game with her father's valet, Jean, under the nose of his bride-to-be, Kristin, the cook. Marber has uprooted the drama from its Swedish setting and relocated it in a country house outside London on the eve of Labour's historic landslide in July 1945.
After Miss Julie premiered on television in 1996, the year before a different Labour Party achieved another electoral triumph. In Michael Grandage's mesmeric and superbly acted revival at the Donmar, the piece now comes across as a metaphor for political victories that don't live up to their promise. There is no equivalent electoral watershed in the framework of the original play. Giving the proceedings this context adds a further irony for neither Julie nor her father's chauffeur are psychologically equipped to adapt to the brave new postwar world. Richard Coyle's blunt, deceptively salt-of-the-earth Yorkshire John enjoys flirting with the insubordination that now seems to have the backing of the ballot box. Sampling some nicked vintage burgundy, he parodies the tones of a wine-bibbing toff: "[It's] Like Winston Churchill - robust, full-bodied and...", pausing while he drains the glass, "finished". But he's no revolutionary. His ambition is to emulate his social superiors, not to live by better, alternative values. In one of many telling touches, Marber makes John's offstage master a Labour rather than a Tory, one that can only tolerate the masses in theory. Kelly Reilly is utterly transfixing as Julie. An uppity little madam, she behaves like a child acting out an unconsciously grotesque parody of imperious, sophisticated adulthood. She lets you see, though, that this shrill cock-tease is a fragile, lost soul, screwed up by her mother's half-baked feminism and her father's detachment.
Reilly and Coyle brilliantly register the constant shifts in power between Julie and John and bring out every deviant nuance in Marber's succinct and insinuating exchanges. "Remember your position!" she shrieks in one of their post-coital wrangles. "Which one, Madame?" he ripostes. "There were so many".
It speaks volumes for the cachet of performing at the Donmar that an actress of Helen Baxendale's standing is prepared to take on the smallest role in this three-hander. She brings quiet presence to Christine, the fiancée, showing you a woman who uses her implacable normality as a stealthy, weapon. This is terrific theatre: like the Strindberg original, Marber's ingenious update is at once horrible and hypnotic.Reuse content