Theatre

Talented actors are left adrift in MTC's adaptation of Strindberg's masterpiece, 'Miss Julie'. By Peter Craven.

MTC’s ’Miss Julie’ misfire

Robin McLeavy and Mark Leonard Winter in MTC’s 'Miss Julie'.
Credit: Jeff Busby

Expectations were high with this Melbourne Theatre Company production of Miss Julie. Strindberg’s extraordinary swooping play, which seems to contain every cruelty and act of assault, all of them sexualised to the point of excruciation, which also happens to contain what is probably the greatest role in the modern theatre, perhaps in any theatre, for a younger actress, was to be directed by the Sydney Theatre Company’s brilliant associate Kip Williams, who gave Melbourne one of the better productions it has seen in ages when he did Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information and who had caused a splash in Sydney with a production of Suddenly, Last Summer, which had Robyn Nevin as the mad old woman and Eryn Jean Norvill as the girl accused of being mad, as well as backward projections that allowed the audience to see an intimate film in close-up of the action being performed as an archaic rite by live bodies before their eyes, some said to ravishing effect, others not.

Well, we get the blown-up camera work with Miss Julie, if nothing else: or, indeed, what sometimes looks like less than nothing.

There had been considerable talk about who might play the title role. Was Cate Blanchett, at the edge of being too old for some of the younger parts she essays, going to make this ferocity of a girl writ monstrous and marvellous some kind of last hurrah to the younger repertoire in her erstwhile home town? Even more electrifying to the mind was the thought of Rose Byrne, so darkly dramatic on television with Glenn Close in Damages and such a natural-born comic actress of the very highest calibre in her films that you can just tell how deadly she would be in high and terrible drama, going to pick up Strindberg’s Girl Fury as her battle axe and her vengeance. Or – which would still be exciting – might we get Sarah Snook, who’s been sharing the Old Vic stage in London, playing that siren witch of destruction, Hilde Wangel, to Ralph Fiennes’ Solness, in The Master Builder?

Well, none of these. Our Miss Julie is Robin McLeavy, who was a distinguished Stella in the 2009 production of A Streetcar Named Desire for the Sydney Theatre Company by Liv Ullmann with Cate Blanchett and Joel Edgerton.

Her Jean – the manservant with whom she performs her deadly pas de deux – is Mark Leonard Winter, who was rather striking as the dropkick rock star in Birdland. His girlfriend is played by Zahra Newman who, for better or worse, is striking in everything: it’s hard not to imagine we might live to see her play the title roles in Saint Joan and Annie Get Your Gun.

It’s a significant collection of histrionic riches, but, with the exception of Newman, who perhaps exhibits a shade too much authority, everyone else is losing their grip in the most deadly enfeebled way in a play that sets rampaging madness to music as powerfully as any play since… I don’t know… Phèdre? King Lear?

Look, anyone with a long continuing interest in the theatre will have hit up against Miss Julie. No memory burns more brightly or more hellishly than the young Helen Mirren in the 1972 American Film Theatre version, though I remember the simmering beauty and power of repression of Lena Olin’s Miss Julie for Ingmar Bergman on the New York stage 25 years ago and Greta Scacchi at the Wharf a year later in a Jean-Pierre Mignon production with Alex Menglet as the thug valet.

More recently, there have been wholly convincing accounts of the majesty and ferocity of Yaël Farber’s South African Mies Julie, which was at the Perth Festival in 2014.

Kip Williams’ Miss Julie with Robin McLeavy is cluttered, silly and succeeds, just a little incredibly, in missing the thread of one of the most graphically pointed pieces of dramatic writing ever held to the world’s throat.

Missing the thread with Miss Julie is not like missing the thread with Chekhov, who is subtle and orchestral so that failure is numbingly dull. Miss Julie misapprehended is like failing to cotton on to the rites of marital destruction in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s one thing to fail in this play but something else not to play it on the note, because Strindberg’s notes are the essential music of 20th-century drama.

Strindberg invented the kind of play that was developed by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. He’s the neat whisky to which they added water. If you want the raw intoxication, the pure spirit of intimacy used as an instrument of desecration, whether erotic or familial, or of the nowhere in-between, go to Strindberg.

Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour provided it with a black splendour I never expect to see equalled, let alone surpassed, in Dance of Death at the Sydney Festival in 2004. Kat Stewart and Dion Mills did it in minor key, not flawlessly but with surging power, in Creditors at Red Stitch in 2010.

Some people think the trouble with this Miss Julie is as simple as the dumb-arse, “fuck”-happy vulgarity of the admittedly maladroit adaptation of the play by Kip Williams and the MTC’s dramaturg, Chris Mead, which is admittedly full of needless, luvveyish inanities of colloquial decoration. But in fact it goes beyond this.

The sheer annihilating energy of this play is Miss Julie, the young woman set on her own destruction and that of the necessary male lust object in sight, here consistently fluffed and shuffled away and flirted with and evaded in Robin McLeavy’s opulent, unfocused characterisation, which reduces Strindberg’s lethal anti-heroine to the outline of a half-simpering and half-evanescent Chekhov figure, denuded of a shadow ensemble and afflicted with a bewildering but fumbling paranoia. The performance has the dismaying quality of exhibiting a good actress miscast, adrift and getting no help or illumination from her director or any other adviser, in the face of a script that could be made to work despite being fuzzy and needlessly unfocused.

Mark Leonard Winter has the lesser role but it is still a killer. He’s the man Julie goes out to get and carries home, bereft of tackle and horns and gored by her own high and mighty emblems of exultation and annihilation. It’s a role you can imagine played by the young Russell Crowe at his most charismatic and thuggish, though with a streak of masculine humour and self-mockery. Instead, Winter, an interesting though not quite surefooted actor, gives a portrait of a metrosexual klutz.

McLeavy and Winter are talented, but come across as adrift. Both are hapless and – on opening night – a bit hopeless in the face of no overseeing directorial or consultative intelligence that can be classified as anything other than bewildered or wrongheaded.

The script is embroidered and imperfect but the problem is with the conception of the action that remains intact. Zahra Newman does what she can but she is saddled with an idiot last scene, a blatant and silly rewrite, in which the sane servant woman has to deliver a lecture to the tearaway hysteric self-immolator.

The production is likely to improve but not in the direction it should as a satisfactory interpretation of one of the very greatest – and perhaps the most starkly disturbing – plays of the past 150 years. It could be kicked into shape if an Armfield or a Nevin bore down on it and made everyone grip their teeth on emotional reality, but as it stands the production is bitterly disappointing.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Shot August night". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.