Interview: After Miss Julie – Challenging And Classical Drama Set Close To Home
The war is over. Germany has unconditionally surrendered. Every household has suffered, people have been lost and injured, and others are still missing. But the war is over, and the bitter-sweet VE-Day celebrations fill every street in every village in the country.
With this backdrop our attention is focused on the Manor, as we watch the complicated and ultimately catastrophic relationship between chauffeur John, and Miss Julie the lady of the house, in Patrick Marber’s play After Miss Julie.
After Miss Julie is based on August Strindberg’s ground-breaking Miss Julie, written in 1888. Taking place on Midsummer’s Eve, the original plays out on the estate of a Swedish Count. Miss Julie and her valet’s conflicted feelings for each other escalate over the course of the night, leading to a short lived affair. Social mores of the time are explored and contested, and the impact of class and gender are writ large as the story unfolds and creates a basis on which devastating and irrational choices are made by the characters involved.
A century later Patrick Marber has reworked Strindberg’s original. In 1995 he wrote a version set in an English Manor during celebrations for the Labour Party victory in 1945. However, more recently Marber has worked with Prime Cut’s Artistic Director Emma Jordan and relocated the events of that momentous night to Co, Fermanagh, adding to the sense of separation and upheaval that run like currents through the play that is presently touring Ireland and will return to the north on 24th March.
“Strindberg was a brilliant dramatist and an awful misogynist” smiled Emma Jordan as she explained why the character Miss Julie behaves as she does. “His thinking was that she was a hysteric, in that 19th century understanding of women being hysterical. But actually it’s much deeper than that.”
“Undoubtedly Miss Julie has severe mental health issues” Jordan continued, “but what is really interesting is how the psychological landscape is really explored -why this woman is like she is – in terms of her relationship with her parents, the isolation, the class system. As we work on it this is not about a woman who is crazy. This is about three people who are all damaged by the class structures in which they exist, some more so than others. Ultimately Miss Julie is the most damaged of all.”
“She (Miss Julie) has this incredible line. “I won’t tolerate pain”. She hasn’t been equipped by her parents, by her class or by her gender to be able to deal with the real world outside of that house. She hasn’t been given the equipment to survive and she can’t tolerate pain.”
Taking the play to Fermanagh was a very deliberate choice. To Emma Jordan it was a key element to the context for Miss Julie’s mental health. “There was something about the isolation of that class, being on the border, N Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in terms of the empire. They were placed at the farther reaches of a society which is already a small society. They were right at the edges of the empire, in a very conflicted cultural background. So to me that really gave a beautiful backdrop in terms of the isolation of this character.”
1945 saw the end of World War II. It was a year in which soldiers returned home from war and women returned home from land working and factories. People had fought and suffered in the name of freedom. “It’s at a time of seismic change in Britain” Jordan went on to explain. “Post Second World War, Labour about to get into power, the class structures breaking down, the rise of the middle classes. At the end of the day Miss Julie doesn’t survive, so as a metaphor for a defunct and extremely damaging class system her demise is kind of inevitable – if you take the characters as expression of class.”
Strindberg’s original Miss Julie was a ground breaking play written in a way that ensured that it would be realistic, that the character’s actions and motivations were grounded in their heredity and environment. This naturalistic style of writing carries right through to Prime Cut’s After Miss Julie. “When I’m in the room working with actors, all we are ever trying to do is find out the truth for that character” Jordan explained. “You don’t find out the truth of that character by saying that person is mad. You find out a person’s history and try and excavate that. Nobody is mad if you have empathy, or evolved understanding of why they behave like they do, why they make their decisions.”
“Strindberg was a trailblazer. Miss Julie is iconic for being one of the first naturalistic plays, and it is as inspiring as it is infuriating. It’s unbelievably misogynistic, but his vision for theatre was incredible”.
The play “does have a world in psychological realism, but there are elements of it which aren’t logical” explains Jordan. “One can only find a way through it if one traverses an emotional moment by moment journey. If you apply a real logic to it you get kind of lost. So it has a foot in each world. And symbolism is very important … Basically in an hour and a half you have to get from love to hate to despair, you go through the gamut. And that’s very difficult to map. The emotional maps to the characters are the key to finding out the non-realist elements of the play.”
There is another element to After Miss Julie that electrifies all of the currents running through it. Sex. Call it passion, or lust, or desire. Whatever, it’s sex. Jordan studied Strindberg’s Miss Julie as an ‘O’ Level student. “I was a naive 16 year old. I was compelled by it but didn’t understand it because it is really erotic. I didn’t understand the sexuality in it. The relationships, the power, and dominance and subservience.”
Emma Jordan doesn’t want to pigeon hole the play. She doesn’t want to underestimate any audience’s “intelligence or palette for challenge”. However she does add “anybody who likes classical work will absolutely love it. At the same time it’s a sexy kind of a thriller.” There is also the aspect of class differences, of servant and master. “Downton Abbey is one of the most popular phenomenon that has happened in the past decade. People are genuinely interested in this time and this relationship.”
“Sometimes in Northern Ireland we don’t get the chance to see too much classical work. A lot of the work that is produced is contemporary which is fantastic but sometimes the repertoire and the choice isn’t so great because we’re a small city in a small country. So this is an opportunity for audiences to see something they haven’t had an opportunity to see in a long time.”
Pictures by Ciaran Bagnall.
Words by Cara Gibney.
After Miss Julie tour as follows:
Project Arts Centre Dublin: 9-19 March (Previews from 4 March) |Source Arts Centre Thurles: 22 March | Lime Tree Theatre Limerick: 23 March | Market Place Theatre | Armagh: 24 March | An Grianán Theatre Letterkenny: 26 March | The MAC Belfast: 30 March – 9 April