Theatre Review: Miss Julie by August Strindberg

James Sheldon (Jean) and Charlotte Hamblin (Miss Julie). Photo by Keith Pattison.

By Ken Powell

Howard Brenton’s bold new adaptation of a Swedish classic has just opened at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) and is playing in the Studio Theatre. This one-act play with a cast of just three is as powerful as it is disturbing. It’s like Downton Abbey with teeth.

The play focuses on the servants’ kitchen at an aristocratic estate one Midsummer’s Eve. Miss Julie plays seductively with her father’s manservant with devastating consequences. Highly emotive to the point of melodrama, it is nonetheless a no-holds-barred look at lust, seduction, class warfare and the battle of the sexes.

Initially, Miss Julie (played by Charlottle Hamblin) is portrayed as the female equivalent of the ‘lord of the manor’ expecting to have whatever wicked way she wishes with the common people beneath her. As time goes on however, we see that she is tragically fragile both hating and loving men as well as despising herself. The manservant, Jean (played by James Sheldon) begins as a proud man, faithful to his fiancée (the Cook, Kristin, played by Izabella Urbanowicz). But eventually we see his dark and dangerous side.

This contradictory mix is typical of Strindberg who never wrote characters which are easy to understand or define as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Like his own wild philosophies which vacillated between extremes, Strindberg’s two central characters here move from love to hate and back again within a few seconds. One moment deeply thoughtful, the next, vulgar and abusive, we never quite know what to think about Jean or Julie. Guilt, sin and innocence are turned upside in a constant flurry.

The whole production team at TBTL have, as usual, created a brilliant set. Little touches like genuine running water from the tap and so on makes the all-important realism of the kitchen believable. Direction from Tom Littler is clearly on point and the intimacy of the Studio theatre is perfect: the full force of rising emotions hits you almost physically in the face which is just as Strindberg would have wished.

I wish I could point to one actor as a cut above the others but here all three are excellent. If anything, James Sheldon’s part is the most frightening, Charlotte Hamblin’s the most crazed and Izabella Urbanowicz the most heart-warming. Together the three of them create a shocking and powerful performance.

‘Miss Julie’ plays in the Studio until 3 November. Book tickets online at www.theatrebythelake.com or call the box office on 017687 74411. 

Charlotte Hamblin (Miss Julie). Photo by Keith Pattison.