Before the screening of the National Theatre’s production of Julie, the audience was treated to an interview with its writer and director, Polly Stenham and Carrie Cracknell. Stenham spoke of Julie as a play that blurs the boundaries, not only in terms of social class but race, gender, and privilege too. Touching on all of these subjects, and more, means that Stenham’s version of August Strindberg’s original 1888 play is a dynamic and complex one. It is a play that needs to be watched multiple times, I feel, in order to gauge its plethora of themes and capture the immensity of its social commentary.
The opening sequence of the play, setting the scene, is rather tedious due to its longer-than-needed running time. The stage opens up to reveal a very raucous house party, a group of young people clubbing away to loud bass tunes. They are dancing away in the background on a raised stage, Julie, the main character, played by Vanessa Kirby, among them. She is wearing a long, flowing dress, a tight-fitting bikini top, and glitter on her face. She is every bit the free-flowing spirit; not in any way a resemblance of the affluent existence in which she resides. Below this party atmosphere, in the foreground, is a spacious kitchen in which the housekeeper and her fiancé reside, cleaning up after the guests. Once the music finally dies away, we are properly introduced to Christina (Thalissa Teixeira) and Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa), who appear to be the perfect couple. Indeed, Jean, dressed smartly in black suit and tie, and sitting opposite Christina at the end of a long dining table, appears to fit more the image of the house’s owner than does the daughter of its actual owner, Julie. This is but one of the ways that Stenham and Cracknell subvert the expectations of their audience, playing with notions of class, race and privilege. It is one of the most interesting aspects of this play.
It is also one of the most intricate. In not wanting to lose the complexity of the three central characters, Stenham and Cracknell manage, somehow, to be able to retain this complexity and, as a result, create a dynamic interplay between them that creates a fascinating piece of theatre. It is so fascinating, in fact, that it becomes hard to juggle the wealth of commentary that is being offered on a racial, social, sexual and financial level (to name but four). As such, one is best watching Julie for a second, third, or even fourth, time in order to grasp the many layers which Stenham and Cracknell attempt to subvert and blur the boundaries of. It is why Abrefa, Teixeira, and Kirby in particular, should be applauded for their performances. They hold everything within their respective characters together so well, and utilise their motivations in order to create a narrative that bubbles with tension and friction. It doesn’t always pay off – sometimes the action is a bit too slow, a bit too mundane – but even then it seems to contribute to an ending that is fiery with emotion and powerful in its actions. The final scene, the camera zooming out from a stage surrounded by a white light, is strangely mesmeric and deftly haunting.
Julie is a quietly captivating and positively intriguing production from Polly Stenham and Carrie Cracknell. They have taken the source material from 130 years ago and brought it bang up-to-date in this highly relevant and fascinating version. They touch on so many themes, and it is full of complex machinations, that it is testament to Kirby and her fellow cast members that they manage to hold these in balance. The interplay between them is fascinating; the power games at play in their conversation and movement deeply layered with meaning. Julie has so much to say. It’s worth taking the time to listen.
This production was watched at a live screening in Theatr Colwyn and reviewed as part of the Young Critics North Wales scheme.