This fine, sultry production of After Miss Julie kicks off an eco-friendly season at the Young Vic called Classics for a New Climate. Efforts were made during rehearsals to reduce energy use; the props and part of the set are recycled; the tickets are re-usable. The programme includes a note from each of the creative team explaining how they contributed to the project: playwright Patrick Marber’s waggish offering is that he recycled the play. It’s droll, but true. This drama is a neat fit, being in itself a reworking of Strindberg’s classic.
And what an excellent example of recycling it is. Marber’s 1995 play takes Strindberg’s 1888 original and shifts the action to the night of the Labour landslide victory in 1945. Again we are in a country house, again there is a summer ball taking place, but here it is in the context of a seismic political and social shift. It is against this backdrop that Miss Julie, the daughter of the household, descends to the kitchen to flirt with her father’s chauffeur, John, and wriggle in between him and his fiancée, kitchen maid Christine. Marber’s achievement is to respect the original, but give it a twist that sharpens and intensifies the power struggles it depicts. Natalie Abrahami’s intimate, finely nuanced revival gains piquancy from the current enthusiasm for upstairs-downstairs television dramas.
Here there is real bite to the mutual resentment, envy and fascination between the classes. The cast literally have to trot up and down a long staircase in Patrick Burnier’s set to pass between the two worlds. Uncertainty as to who has the upper hand fuels the lust between John (Kieran Bew) and Miss Julie (Natalie Dormer). She minces into the kitchen and demands that he dance with her, while Christine (a fine, understated performance from Polly Frame) presses her lips together and keeps her counsel. Dormer and Bew handle their characters’ dangerous flirtation beautifully and, as they head inexorably bed-wards, the play reveals not just sexual and class tensions, but also the psychological legacy of their social restrictions.
Dormer’s Miss Julie begins skittish and volatile, but by the end she is unravelling mentally with disturbing speed. Bew’s John is rattled by having to confront his own desires. Frame’s Christine, picking up the pieces, is embittered. No one emerges unscathed in this potent exploration of a frenzied night and a strange new dawn.