After Miss Julie

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Patrick Marber
Directed by Cameron Rhodes
Presented by One Lonely Goat
Basement Theatre, Auckland | August 27-September 7

Full disclosure: After Miss Julie is one of my right-arm plays. In that I would have given my right arm to have written it. It improves on Strindberg’s still impressive and still shocking 19th century classic handily, and builds on the themes of class mobility that were lurking beneath the surface. It’s got smart but not overly clever dialogue, tense silences, and even tenser sexual tension. It’s pretty much a perfect play, and I’m surprised to see it being done over here, especially by a smaller company. One Lonely Goat’s production doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the play, but it’s one with enough strengths to recommend.

The story is deceptively simple: we’re in England in 1945 and it’s the night the Labour Party has won over the Conservatives. The lady of the house visits her father’s servant while everybody is dancing and partying. A shared history between them emerges, with much sexual tension. The playwright Patrick Marber layers a lot of social commentary throughout, especially in the second half where everything is upended and the characters go down the path towards something they can’t quite come back from. The plot is strong but relatively slight, and relies on the actors to carry it off and make it hit home.

As the titular Miss Julie, Jodie Hillock is asked to carry the play and she does the role justice. Her performance is beautifully modulated, so that we see that Miss Julie is performing her role as much as Hillock is performing hers. In the later parts of the play, she convinces through Miss Julie’s changes of heart, and in a key moment grabs the play by the vitals with venom that you can almost feel from the front row.

As the servant, simply named John, Errol Shand has a convincing accent and gait. From the moment he walks on we understand that John is a man who wants more than his station, but is still securely comfortable asking “how high?” when told to jump.

However, it’s Dena Kennedy who emerges as the highlight of the play. When I read After Miss Julie in university and then again this year, I thought Christine, John’s soon-to-be-wife and fellow servant, was the wet blanket of the play. Kennedy’s performance actually proves that Christine is the backbone. When things go crazy, it’s her Christine who remains in her place, and Kennedy gives the character a steely determination and quickness that surprises. As the power stakes turn and turn like an hourglass, Christine stays put for better or for worse, and even though we like this woman, we know that she’s essentially asserting her place as a servant. It’s a complex role, and Kennedy brings this all out beautifully without stealing focus.

Unfortunately, a few aspects of the play are just a little bit off. Important moments are lost to some audience members depending on where they’re sitting; I missed a key moment for Christine because it happened more or less behind me, and a climactic moment in the latter half of the play happened in a room that wouldn’t be visible to half the audience. Another key moment is also lessened because of a peculiar choice of entrance and exits. These blocking missteps don’t damage the play in a significant way, but it makes me wish the moments were given their due.

Other kinks will work themselves out as the season progresses. Some of the silences where nothing is happening onstage feel less like moments of portent and more like dead space. A moment where a mob is supposed to be banging on the door sounds very clearly like one person banging on the door. Again, none of these are enough to damage the play significantly or lessen the achievements of the direction, but they’re significant enough to take me out of the action.

On the whole, Cameron Rhodes has to be commended for digging into the script with these performers and delivering what is largely a good production of a flawless play. You’re probably not going to get a chance to see After Miss Julie again. It’s a play that has to be applauded for dealing with class mobility not only critically, but also intelligently and even-handedly. I definitely recommend catching it before it disappears. You won’t be disappointed.