MISS JULIE is touring to Hope Mill Theatre for one week only this June. Director Jake Murray of Elysium Theatre talks to us about why Miss Julie is still so relevant today…
‘Miss Julie’ is a play that never goes out of date. It was dealing with issues of class and gender politics long before we were now.
When Strindberg wrote it in 1888, no-one was talking about class on stage. Working class characters, even in Shakespeare and Moliere, were either comic relief, charming schemers, servants, buffoons or, for all their humanity, were kept from the centre of their plays. No-one had treated them tragically before, or presented them as having as complex an emotional life as nobility, aristocrats or monarchs.
Shakespeare had come closest in his History Plays. The soldiers before the battle of Agincourt who debate the nature of war with Henry V and best him are perhaps the first time in European theatre that commoners were given an authentic voice, but they don’t know that the man they are talking to is the King. In ‘Miss Julie’
Strindberg was driving class politics onto the stage in a way no- one had ever done before. It took almost half a century for D H Lawrence to do the same in the UK. Strindberg got there there first. And the class politics of the play still sting. The words that come out of John’s mouth as he tells Julie what the world looks like ‘from down there’ are as powerful and truthful now as they were in 1888. In our class-riven country, especially in the light of the last decade of Austerity and Brexit, when class divisions feel like they are entrenching themselves once again in our society, ‘Miss Julie’ is perhaps more important than ever.
What makes the play truly exciting, however, is how Strindberg mixes class with gender politics. In some senses ‘Miss Julie’ is the ultimate #MeToo play, but what skews any simplistic reading of the drama is how issues of class distort easy characterisation of Miss Julie and John. Both are victims and oppressors at the same time, he because of his complete disempowerment because of class, she because of her status as a woman in her time. Strindberg’s coup is to flip the relationship mid-way through with the consummation of their sexual attraction. Before then, John is under Miss Julie’s control, after it she is under his. No-one explored the pain and irrational nature of the relationships between the sexes in the brutally honest but tragically compassionate way in which Strindberg did, either before or after. But the brilliance of the writing is how it offers no easy answers. Neither Miss Julie or John are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but an intense mixture of both; they are both heroes and villains, both oppressors and oppressed.
The audience enters a world in which all categories disappear. That makes for exhilarating and truthful theatre. At the same time the play never becomes propaganda or special pleading. While John and Miss Julie serve as archetypes – servant/ mistress, man/ woman – they are also individuals. Generalising about them, imposing ideology upon them doesn’t capture their complexity – as even Strindberg found judging by the gap
between what he said about the characters in the play and how we actually encounter them. Nothing is simple, nothing is cut and dried. That’s what makes the play so destabilising and so exciting; you can’t hide from the messy truth of human behaviour but are forced to see it in the raw.
For us at Elysium ‘Miss Julie’ is one of the great plays of the modern era. It ushered in a new naturalism/ realism that theatre had not seen before, and broke down taboos about class, gender and sexuality that had been absent from the stage for centuries. Ibsen had pioneered the same with his dramas, but it was Strindberg who broke down the door and took theatre into new territories. Playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Maxim Gorky, Tennessee Williams, John Osborne and Edward Albee all professed a debt to him thanks to the frankness with which he dealt with sexuality and the battle men and women have trying to navigate it. We want to celebrate the genius of Strindberg and introduce him to a new audience. In the North East we achieved that.
Many of the audience that came to see it had never even heard of the play before, let alone seen or read it, and were stunned by its modernity. On some nights audience members wouldn’t leave their seats after the end because they were too busy discussing the play. We would love to do that here.
We see ‘Miss Julie’ as a drama or real passion and energy. It’s a sexual thriller, a political drama, a play about two individuals trying to make sense of their lives. Its also a very moving tragedy about female potential being wasted because society has not yet found a place for it. Above all its great theatre, that asks massive questions about human nature and isn’t afraid of
looking at the darkness within us as well as the light. We want our audiences to experience it to the full. We want it to touch them and move them, and make them buzz with excitement.
If it sparks interest in Strindberg, that’s good too. We can’t wait to bring it to Hope Mill and Manchester.