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SRB at the Theatre: Strindberg in Perth – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

SRB at the Theatre: Strindberg in Perth

May 20, 2019 | by Joseph Farrell


The programme, obviously, attributes the work to August Strindberg but adds that it has been adapted by Zinnie Harris, a writer much admired for a series of mordant plays which deal unflinchingly with issues of our times. However, the words ‘adapted by’ now cause a flutter of apprehension in all but the most purblind and uncritical of theatre-goers in Scotland. There would appear to be at present a deeply rooted belief among theatrical producers and directors that the people who pay to sit in the stalls can only digest foreign work if it has been chewed, regurgitated and brought up in appropriately Scottified form, with a helping of half-remembered terms from a schooldays study of the Doric. The script which makes its way onto the stage is often a work of criticism, or the product of a duel between writer and adapter rather than an updating or re-presentation of the original vision, and the alert spectator has to choose between them. The translation in its purest form is dead, and in fact no translator is credited on the posters of Perth theatre, the company who produced this work.

However, if there has to be an adaptation, Harris shows here how it can be done to the advantage of both writer and play. She operates like an art restorer, deftly freshening the colours of the original by applying modern techniques, but avoiding the risk of inserting false perspectives and offering the opportunity for fresh assessment. In the case of Miss Julie, this requires a certain level of restraint, for no writer from the traditional repertory is so antipathetic to today’s received wisdom as is August Strindberg. His play is enhanced but remains challenging after the deconstruction of the frames of power implicit in Harris’ approach.

Everybody knows one thing about everything from the location of the holy grail to the sex life of the polar bear, and the one thing that everybody knows about Strindberg is that he was a misogynist. And he was, by God he was! His biographer Michael Meyer described Strindberg himself as ‘the strangest figure in the history of literature’, and although that judgement is somewhat over the top, any top, nowadays some of his beliefs would make even the most unreformed male chauvinist gasp. His views on the innate inferiority of women, on their cunning, deviousness and wiliness in ensnaring men, as happens to the Captain in The Father, the work which Strindberg produced before Miss Julie, read like pages from the handbook of some Grand Inquisitor. ‘Woman is a stunted form of a human being,’ he wrote. He was also anti-semitic and a white supremacist.

It was the author himself who laid it down that Julie herself is ‘half woman’, so in these circumstances it must have been a temptation to Harris to produce a refutation in the guise of an adaptation, and to stage an anti-Miss Julie. Instead she examines and highlights the human strength which underlies the tormented protagonist and reinforces the sheer dramatic power which imbues the whole work. Few playwrights in the European tradition endow their work with such emotional tension, and this quite excellent production brings that power to the surface in every aspect of the play– in the situations which see the characters confront one another, in the depiction of their inner turmoil, in the external complexity of their differing social status, in their response to the demands made on them by the unco’ guid, in the conflict between class standing and primitive sexual urges, in the individual shift from love to desire and then to contempt and hatred, and in the whole gallimaufry of the sex war – and for once that limp cliché has force and meaning.

Harris shifts the setting, so the plot unfolds in some unstated country which might well be Scotland but need not be, in an age which might be the present but where class relations have remained those observed by Engels in Victorian Manchester, in a town where life is lived in the shadow of the mill owner but where the workers have temporarily defied him by going on strike. It is midsummer, the time of a stifling heat uncommon in the Scottish climate but still the occasion for the kind of revelry which was common on that date in Sweden. While the music intrudes into the kitchen, the dancers in their corybantic festivities do not surge into occasional view as Strindberg had them do, but their presence is felt as well as heard. Their jollity is a reproach to the sombre mood inside the house, and they, although momentarily rebelling, enforce by their ability to spread gossip, always a great maintainer of any moral status quo, the pious decencies of the day. Can Miss Julie withstand that force?

The unchanging set, designed by Jen McGinley, is as simple and plain a kitchen as Strindberg in the naturalist phase of his career wished it to be – a table with chairs around it, pots and pans along the wall, an oven, a sink, basin and, in full view above the door, the bells linked to the master’s room which will call the servant John to duty but also summon him heaven or hell as surely as those in Macbeth. This play is a tragedy, a modern tragedy and the kitchen is its site as once the aristocratic castle had been. The maid Christine is shown at work preparing a meal as the audience files in, and the fact that the play could be turned upside down and seen from her viewpoint is due in part to the skill and conviction Helen Mackay brings to the part. She is always a no-nonsense figure, initially acerbic with John, to whom she may be engaged, when he reports that he had been at the party dancing with the mistress of the house. She remains submissive to her absent social betters but does not restrain herself in her contempt for John and Julie as she understands what they have done and what they are contemplating. This part is normally seen as the least important of the three, but McKay’s all-round performance provides the indispensable grounding on which this drama of hesitant revolt against convention can unfold.

The problem is to decide whether Julie is a brave rebel or an example of Strindbgergian woman in her existential condition. With Ibsen there would be no dubiety, but although Strindberg disliked Doll’s House and took a firm stance on the ‘woman question’, later generations can re-examine the relation between author and character. Did Strindberg really create the Julie he thought he had created, or did the character take on a life of her own which subverted the author’s plans? In a well thought-out yet passionate depiction of her character, Hiftu Quasem suggests that Julie is never fully in command, if we except the scenes glimpsed by John in which she had humiliated her official fiancé by spanking him with a horse whip, causing him to rage off. That episode over, she turns her attention to John, Christine’s intended, her father’s servant and her social inferior. The two factors, sex and class, are the motor forces of the world as Strindberg conceives it, and Quasem inhabits Julie’s changing moods to perfection, in turns over-confident then riven by doubt, enraged then coquettish, arrogant then humiliated, peremptory then pleading, superior but finally defeated.

Harris has rewritten the dialogue but follows the progress of the original plot, leaving the underlying questions unanswered because perhaps unanswerable. Julie has aspirations below her social status but above her gender status as a woman. She is tugged by respect for her parents whom she does not love and by a consciousness of her class but is driven in a contrary sense by purely sexual, not loving, urges. The changes of tone and register in the dialogue between this mysterious, enigmatic or even inexplicable duo of characters who are John and Julie, but not Christine, are subtly caught. On stage, if not in his treatises, Strindberg was drawn to the irrational, or at least to the ungraspable, so the dialogue veers about in stops and starts, in a series of inconsequential remarks and false trails as emotion predominates over reason.

Once again in spite of Strindberg’s overt opinions, John emerges as the least dominant and certainly most unattractive of the three central characters. Lorn Macdonald, who completes the trio of highly impressive performances, first strides in from the drinking and partying outside having been compelled, to Christine’s dismay, to dance with Miss Julie, but totally confident in his masculinity. Once Julie comes in after him, Macdonald makes it clear that John has the soul of a serf, given to bouts of ostentatious assertiveness but undermined by his inability to live up to his own swagger. He is plainly flattered by the attention shown him by Miss Julie, but it is she who has to take the initiative to entice him into the bedroom while Christine is asleep.

They recognize they have crossed some kind of Rubicon but where to go next? It is in the expression of this dilemma, rather than in the supposedly misogynistic portrayal of Julie, who renounces her right to be Miss Julie, that the energy and the contradictions of the play really reside. John produces all manner of plans for a new life elsewhere, in Ireland here or in Switzerland in the original, but neither is unable to commit. He articulates the dream but then undermines the scheme by his objections, so the pair fantasize about their future before tumbling back into dull realism over the present, causing them to scream and plead, to insult and beguile each other. Julie breaks into her father’s desk to steal the money for the journey, thereby making it impossible for her to remain in his home. Their possible flight is prevented by Christine who on the way to church, denounces both of them, but in any case it is not clear that John, a servant at heart, would have had the strength of will for any decisive step.

One will is pitted against the other, and I wonder if Zinnie Harris was tempted to alter the ending? Whatever Strindberg may have thought, Julie is not the conniving, relentless fury that Laura had been in The Father. She is a malleable human being, confused in her own self, buffeted by opposing interior forces as well as by her father and her servant-lover. She is all too human, whatever the author may have intended and was obliged to state in prose in his introduction. Either John or Julie has to submit to a tragic ending, and the tension in the closing scenes is tangible in the theatre as the two engage in extended verbal jousting, expertly rendered by the two actors. This is the production which handsells the new studio theatre in the Perth theatre complex and director Shilpa T-Hyland has ensured that it is memorable.

Miss Julie was at Perth Theatre, and toured thereafter to the Tron, Glasgow and The Studio, Edinburgh. Run now ended.

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