Julie @ National Theatre: Con Las Feministas

I never know which to trust more at the theatre, my head, or my gut. Often, they’re in sync, and my physically response is very similar to my intellectual response. But not always.

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Such was the case with Julie. My gut reaction was /woah Vanessa Kirby is really great and this is a really great play that was given a really interesting production/ but there was a voice in my head, muttering in the background something along the lines of /there are probably very good reasons from a feminist perspective to totally annihilate this./

Both can be true, but liking something in spite of it being inherently misogynistic is… shitty. I know that.

I don’t think Julie is inherently misogynistic. Maybe Miss Julie, the source material is. I wouldn’t know, I’ve only read the last couple of pages of a few editions in the NT bookshop to compare – certainly the circumstances at the end of the play are executed differently. It is a play about a woman with ‘Daddy issues.’ It is a play about a woman who ‘steals’ a man. It’s a play about a woman driven to suicide at least in part because her relationship with the man in question cannot be sustained. It’s a war waged across class and race boundaries in the kitchen of a large house, with a party raging above – populated by exactly the kind of wankers I’ve spent the last 3 years trying to avoid.

The night of her birthday party, Julie has broken up with her boyfriend and starts to flirt with her father’s driver. The attraction seems to be mutual, despite the fact that Jean, the driver is engaged to Kristina, the hired help. Both Jean and Kristina are first-generation immigrants. It’s about property, and colonialism, and sex, and theft, and how they all overlap in the most hideous of ways.

It reminds me of Hedda Gabler in some ways. It does feel like melodrama, like the play is as drunk and as high as its protagonist. It’s not real. It’s too far removed from a recognisable environment to be real, despite the circumstances it dramatizes being all too real for many in this world. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s not the play people want it to be.

At the centre, as Julie herself, is VANESSA KIRBY. Obviously she’s great. She always is. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, even when Jean is off on his long speeches. I just wanted to watch her, what she did, the way she moved from bottle of god-knows-what to another line of coke, back to the bottle. It felt like she was playing it without structure, like she hadn’t psycho-analysed this character to death, hadn’t tried to force it into naturalism. The swings to hostility from affection are like the fringes of a hurricane, she’s dangerous.

I think I liked it – her – in part because it – she – was so hideously posh that everything she did, up to and including putting a bird in a blender, was sort of hilarious to me. Like Tarantino, but actually good. It was a set of behaviours that exist on another plane to the one I, and most of the planet, exist on. She doesn’t really behave in a rational way, sort of beyond psychology in its absolute insistence on a linear conclusion. There’s only one way this night will end. When you add that money to that level of narcissism, and then add in a generous helping of grief and heartbreak, and consider that this is a play, someone’s gonna die.

SPOILER. It’s Julie. She kills herself, on stage, when her relationship (is that even the right word?) with Jean is uncovered by Kristina. I *think,* in the Strindberg, Jean pushes her towards suicide? In this version, by Polly Stenham, it’s very obviously Julie’s decision. It’s an active choice. Make of that what you will.

It’s a tragedy with stakes that feel totally titanic and utterly unimportant all at once, domestic and cosmic, irrelevant and cataclysmic. Perhaps it’s because the death of someone in a position of immense privilege will inevitably have an effect on the people around them. If you don’t ‘feel’ for Julie, you’ll feel for Kristina.

OH and shout out to Tom Scutt’s set. So good. Like a nuclear bunker/autopsy room from Silent Witness/big house on Grand Designs. Somehow it manages to not totally dwarf the actors on it, like so many sets in the Lyttelton. And that thing it does at the end!??? Loved it. Gave me Angels in America vibes.

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I found it infinitely more exciting than either production currently playing in the Olivier. And more entertaining. And more gripping, even. Politically turbulent, perhaps. But I really liked it.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

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