A vague atmosphere of nostalgia accompanies this, the last production by Darlinghurst Theatre as we know it. Next year it moves to auspicious new digs, in an old, completely renovated Baptist tabernacle, that will become the Eternity Playhouse. This particular production, in a sense, closes a circle, as its director was on board for the very first production at the Potts Point premises. Some 184 productions and 11 years later, here we are.

New versions of old plays seem to be rife at the moment. Christabel Sved and Kate Box have entered the fray with August Strindberg’s naturalistic play Miss Julie. Sved directs, while Box leads the cast, alongside James Lugton and Sophie Gregg. Verity Hampson keeps the lighting bleak and low, while Michael Hankin has placed at least two of the actors in a glass box, as if they were some kind of nocturnal animals in a zoo we should more closely examine. (Or maybe a Box just needs to be in one.)

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Strindberg is powerful because he’s raw, honest, spontaneous and uncensored. He refused to let his ego, social mores, political realities, propriety, manners, or anything other superimpositions inhibit his muscular, stream-of-consciousness (not conscience) scribblings. There’s no more classic example of his bent than Miss Julie. What Sved and Box have done is adapt an early 20th-century Swedish play into something more relative, in vernacular and behavioural terms, to the burgeoning 21st century. I mean, what’s a hundred years between friends if you get it, right? So the fact Strindberg put us squarely at the height of summer, in 1874, it’s not such an incredible stretch, for the most part, to imagine certain of the scenes unfolding right here, right now.

The aforementioned glazed cage is a crisp, sharp, economical and elegant metaphor to express Strindberg’s railing against the stifling nature of societal expectations, based on arbitrary and ever-shifting goalposts. In a way, it’s not governments, or police, or armies that control and manipulate us, any more than we collectively agree (actively or passively, but likely the last) to place strictures and confinements upon ourselves, to the point of strangulation. We rob ourselves of freedom of expression. In the restlessness and free-range rampancy of the dialogue, Strindberg, Sved and Box part-posthumously collude to critique the idleness of the rich, who need and thus seek to invent conflict to shore up their coiffed, little lives against endemic boredom. Needless conflict is, to them, so much more edifying than, say, volunteer work (unless it’s for a charity ball, or the like).

The admirable thing about Miss Julie is that she’s at least trying to make a jailbreak; to loosen the noose and swing a little. Throw her head back and laugh it up. Dance. Flirt. Carouse. Cavort. Imbibe. Not necessarily in that order. Box does a complete job of reinventing the character as one part spoiled brat, one part abused child, one part depressive, one part lovelorn and lonely. She has the courage to experiment; to break free. It’s a struggle, of course. She doubtless feels the weight of tradition and her father’s high hopes. Her seduction of Jean, the butler, isn’t so much intended to damage the heart of Kristen, his lover, as it is to find some clear space for herself to inhabit, but with another. On another level, there’s the frisson that comes of the forbidden, but, lurking somewhere under a not-so-thin veneer of self-indulgence and superficiality, she’s seeking something D&M. Of course, she’s hovering over a border that, once crossed, offers no right of return. To step down from one’s position, one’s class, into cheaper shoes, is to be cast out of the garden.

Jean fancies himself as sophisticated, but his worldliness and liberal capacities are sorely tested by Miss Julie’s breaches of conduct. He desires her, but hesitates to act, until he must finally succumb to her taunts and teases. We can almost see Lugton split down the middle, such is the disintegrating challenge to his psyche. It’s more than he can bear, assimilate, or rationalise. In that sense, Jean becomes a victim of his own conceit and self-image, when he can’t live up to his own aspirations to the bohemian, even if it might mean an overdue escape from servitude.

Amidst this is the innocent bystander, Kristen, a virtual Switzerland, trying desperately hard to afford Jean the room to move, sexually and spiritually, he craves; sacrificing her own preferences, compromising her comfort zone, in deference, in an act of martyred love. Jean may be a servant, just like her, but she’s a woman and of few means, pushing her even further down the food chain, so that she must cook and take her rest, even in knowing the consequences of leaving Jean and Julie alone together. She suffers her torment in near silence, showing a level of grace more usually associated with the mother of God.

The power struggle that ensues between J & J bubbles with anxiety, thanks to a tough adaptation and truly outstanding performances. Lugton, an actor who consistently fails to disappoint, has made himself an especially hard act to follow on this occasion, as he veers between cool confidence, brutal chauvinism, tenderness, uncontrollable lust, little-boy-lost vulnerability, unbridled arrogance (embodied particularly well in the comically ironic line ‘decent men are hard to find these days’), confusion, weakness and collapse. He dreams of assuming the next best thing to aristocracy, running an upmarket hotel, but he still has to polish the count’s boots. Thus, it’s a kind of sweet, cowardly, cruel revenge  to cajole cash from Julie, once smitten, in exchange for the “favour” of sex he craves anyway. There’s a name for people like this — men. It puts me in mind of Paul Kelly, in an upcoming film, paraphrasing John Butler Yeats along the following lines: “Intelligent men can only be concerned with two things. Sex. And death.”

In a way, Strindberg arguably showed some deference to convention himself: in the play’s final scene, Julie walks through a door, razor (kindly supplied by her suicide sponsor, Jean) in hand. We know the outcome, but we don’t see it. Death is off-stage. In the Sved and Box retake, however, Julie stabs herself in full view. The merits are debatable, but at least there’s no pussyfooting. The consequences of the use and abuse of power are clear. Present. Dangerous. And bloody.

And this is a bloody good production.

The details: Miss Julie plays the Darlinghurst Theatre until November 11. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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