Miss Julie/Habeas Corpus, Theatre Royal, Bath
Middling in the midsummer
Tuesday 18 July 2006
Transporting Strindberg's Miss Julie to Northern Ireland seems like a dubious proposition, not least because the Irish tongue often suggests a facetious tone. When Jean, Miss Julie's servant, tells Kristin the cook that she should be "glad to land a strapping man like meself", he sounds like he is inviting her to laugh at his pretension instead of brutally stating his worth.
Jean's main antagonist, however, is his mistress, a fish out of water both upstairs in her rich father's house and down in Kevin Rigdon's cavernous kitchen, where the lovers and enemies cast long, Expressionist shadows. It is Midsummer Eve, and the peasants leering outside don't stop Miss Julie, who has been a virgin too long, and the covetous Jean from thrashing out their battle of sex and class. While Rachel O'Riordan's production shakes the furniture, it doesn't shake the walls, as this nuclear-blast of a play can do. Here a tabletop copulation tempts giggles by being choreographed to the tune of an unseen fiddler, its climax for both parties arriving simultaneously with that of the music.
A greater difficulty, however, is the Julie of Andrea Riseborough, who is shrill, skittish and petulant, evincing neither the power of her position or her sex drive. Richard Dormer's Jean is more believable, and occasionally thrilling, as when he leaps across the table to grab the maddening Julie by the throat. But he fails to convey the solidity and forcefulness of a cunning, practical fellow. Pauline Turner as Kristin provides quiet, effective support as the human collateral damage of the battle between the man with whom she has an "understanding" and the woman who attracts him so powerfully because he doesn't understand her. But Strindberg's passion play can still shake you up, its howls of anguish and victory calling across the century to us. What is Julie's cry to Jean - "Go on! Come on!" - but a forerunner of Blanche DuBois's same enticement, a broken bottle in her hand, to Stanley?
Has Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus dated much since its premiere in 1973? Its running gag, "This must be what they mean by the permissive society!", is tired, but the play is elsewhere startlingly prescient. And Peter Hall has a cracking cast.
Dr Wicksteed (James Fleet), dazzled when the buxom Felicity Rumpers (Caitlin Mottram) walks into his surgery, discovers that he is competing with his son, Dennis (Ben Turner), for her affections. Meanwhile, his wife (Annette Badland) plans an assignation with the man - as she keeps reminding him - whom she should have married. Simultaneously, and not irrelevantly, his sister Constance (Susie Trayling) becomes dissatisfied with her 10-year engagement to Edward Bennett's not overly bright Canon Throbbing.
Trayling is giddily transformed, once her new bust arrives in the post, into a femme fatale on a mission to devour two men a day. Badland embodies, with generous embonpoint, a conservative matron who has a perfect attendance record at her cake-decorating class, and, though she boasts of looking like the Queen Mother, bears a closer resemblance to Hyacinth Bucket.
That resemblance is one reason this show is not a four-star fun machine. Fleet, with his limp forelock and his moustache, looks far too much like John Cleese, and, with his shrugs and rolling eyes, acts too much like him as well. Felicity's lofty mother reproduces the bedtime-banshee voice of Margaret Thatcher. The intrusion of clapped-out comic types demeans and distracts from Bennett's own voice, and the play is too slow, sometimes arch, with actors delivering their lines as if savouring the laughs in advance. At the same time, the black and glistening set overemphasises the despair behind the characters' desperate gropings at happiness.
Both to 12 August (01225 448844; www.theatreroyal.org.uk)
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