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Miss Julie at Manchester Royal Exchange

Published by: Caroline May on 18th Apr 2012 | View all blogs by Caroline May
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Sweden’s Midsummer Eve celebrations appear to be a cross between Twelfth Night and a Bacchanalia; or they do in August Strindberg’s 1888 drama Miss Julie.  When his eponymous heroine, the recently un-affianced daughter of the house, gate-crashes the servants’ barn-dance and singles out the dashing and ambitious valet, Jean, tongues are bound to wag.  But things go too far, and during the course of a booze and lust-fuelled night the power dynamic between mistress and servant shifts irreversibly.

Strindberg’s psychotic exploration of the Upstairs/Downstairs scenario is intensely naturalistic - he wants the kitchen set to be just so, the play done straight through without an interval, and the acting to take no account of audience sightlines - you feel he would have loved Sarah Frankcom’s in-the round production.

Although there are telling cameos for Carla Henry as the complacent cook Christine, and Liam Gerrard as a lusty musician, the action is dominated by Joe Armstrong’s Jean and Maxine Peake’s Miss Julie.

With her fragile beauty and blonde hair, Maxine Peake could have been born to play Nordic heroines, and her Brief Encounter accent is even more evocative of a long-gone era than the sumptuous gowns designed by Max Jones.  Initially playful, bold and haughty, she descends into a mess of neuroticism and hysteria, clinging desperately to Jean in spite of his horrific humiliations.  The range of emotions she explores is enormous.

In the noble tradition of scheming literary servants, Joe Armstrong’s Jean is determined to rise in the world on the back of his employer.  Smart, charming, and wily enough to be ostentatiously obsequious at the outset, by the end his chillingly casual dispatch of Miss Julie’s innocent greenfinch foreshadows his ultimate crime.  Even so his vacillations between naked ambition and an ingrained sense of respect and service are utterly convincing.

Sarah Frankcom and her whole creative team have fashioned an intriguing and thought-provoking production of a painful and sometimes powerful classic drama.

MISS JULIE is on until Saturday 12 May 2012
Prices £9-£33
Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm
Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm
Box Office: 0161 833 9833
www.royalexchange.co.uk

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