Fräulein Julie, Barbican, London – review

With Mies Julie, Yael Farber’s blistering, physical updating of Miss Julie, still running at the Riverside Studios, another take on Strindberg’s 1888 drama of sex and class moves into town. But while Katie Mitchell’s Fräulein Julie also aims to honour the radical intent in Strindberg’s naturalistic play, it could scarcely be more different. Where Mies Julie is all heat, dust and sweaty erotic tension, this production (presented by the Berlin Schaubühne in German with English surtitles) is cool and clear as iced water. It is also, remarkably for the Schaubühne, presented in period dress. The innovation lies in its focus and in the way it achieves that focus. Fräulein Julie concentrates not on Julie, the aristocratic young woman, or Jean, the servant she sleeps with, but on Kristin, Jean’s fiancée.

In Mitchell’s inspired, deconstructed version, we see the story through Kristin’s eyes. As the cook, she is a quiet presence in the original: worn out by her daily routines, she falls asleep as Julie and Jean begin to flirt dangerously. Yet Kristin’s life too is wrecked by the events of the play, the difference being that she has no say in the matter. So absorbed are Jean (Tilman Strauβ) and Julie (Luise Wolfram) in their fatal attraction that they barely notice her.

Mitchell first follows her as she goes about her chores – chopping meat, winding the clock, fixing Jean’s supper – the sound of the midsummer’s eve dance floating in through the windows. She then offers us Kristin’s understanding of what happens, pieced together from fragments that she sees and hears.

Her disjointed experience is expressed too in the staging’s integral use of live film, co-directed by video designer Leo Warner. While the action takes place in a couple of onstage rooms, cameramen film the actors, their close-up shots projected live on a giant screen above the stage, and sound technicians pour water, pop corks and strike matches. This deliberate alienation makes for slow progress, but it deftly emphasises Kristin’s meticulous, methodical nature and her helpless position on the periphery of events.

The staging’s success is clinched by a superb, mesmerising performance from Jule Böwe as Kristin. She barely speaks, but in the quiet, sad solemnity of her face we see her aching loneliness. By focusing so eloquently on tiny, daily gestures, this ingenious staging responds afresh to the radical naturalism of the play and to the shocking carelessness of its two main protagonists.

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