Brendan Cowell and Blazey Best in Miss Julie | Belvoir St Theatre (Pic: Ellis Parrinder)

God only knows I’ve had my ups and downs in receiving the theatrical message, according to Simon Stone. Actually, many others probably know, too. I valiantly defended his honour, against the slings and arrows of outrageous critical fortune, for daring to tamper with Death Of A Salesman, or The Gospel According To Arthur Miller. I thought Simon’s ending, though a departure from The Master’s, was appropriate to the age in which we live, worked and was, just possibly, more satisfactory.

But then came his adaptation of another classic, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, an idiomatic masterpiece, from which he sought to remove the idiom. A travesty. Now, Miss Julie, August Strindberg’s naturalistic theatrical icon, which Stone has shaken loose of its late 19th century temporality and location (Stockholm). What we have here is what could be an Ikea kitchen, with its pristine white, clean, uncompromisingly functional lines, but from which all other Swedish associations have been excised. Its relative coldness seems calculated (by Robert Cousins, the set designer), as if to emulate the chilling distance in that can and does characterise relationships, inside and outside the play. A significant  dramatic differential between this production and those aforementioned, however, is the fact Stone isn’t clutching the directorial reins. These have fallen to Leticia Caeres, whose casting and leadership prove utterly faultless.

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(Miss) Julie (Taylor Ferguson), in this case, is the disaffected daughter of a would-be pollie; much less of a supportive asset to her father than, say, Abbott’s daughters, to him. One of the grippingly ingenious decisions of Strindberg’s play and Stone’s adaptation is this father figure’s aloofness and inaccessibility is icily sustained by way of him always remaining an unseen, if major, character.

The essential original themes of class, clout, cash, gender, love and lust have been preserved and reintegrated into an all-Australian milieu. The paternally lovelorn Julie is acting out; an attention-seeking, misguided missile. As an aspiring, but underage, young woman, it’s about the only power and influence she can exert. So she has a little too much everything at a party and has to be ‘rescued’, by a hired minder, from a dalliance that’s turned into a scene, in which she pushes the object of her apparently fickle affections into a pool. But her focus shifts to her rescuer; an unlikely hero (Brendan Cowell, as Jean, purveying his trademark uber-boganic shtick, which proves pitch perfect for the role), whose looks, character and sex appeal are bolstered by teenaged hormonal surges.

Julie pursues him with gusto, exploring all the wiles and precocity she can muster. It’s only a matter of time before he, a hapless, humbugged Humbert Humbert, succumbs to her Lolita-like carnal charms, landing them both in deep too-doo; to use the technical term. The paparazzi is on high alert, while they bonk in an anonymous hotel, in which they’re at pains to remain anonymous. Left out in the cold is Jean’s patient and loyal fiancee, Christine (Blazey Best). There may be a departure from Strindberg (whose Julie isn’t underage) here, but they are relative to the times, believable and tend, if anything, to up the ante, in terms of tension, without detracting from the palpable sense the greater transgression is of class. Jean knows his place. He hasn’t forgotten, where, or how he grew up and is of the conviction it’s something he can’t ever really rise above. It’s intrinsic to his psychological makeup, informing and affecting his every move and belief.

Christine is well-drawn, too. For all her affectations of saintly forgiveness, her ultimatum is dark, cold, calculating and manipulative. Best integrates these contradictions, endowing Christine, also, with a recognisable, identifiable real-worldliness. Especially given this is not just Ferguson’s debut at Belvoir, or on a main stage more generally, but her theatrical debut per se, her performance is astonishing; so much so, if it were her hundredth major role, it would remain as impressive. By turns, sweet, lovable, coy, flirtatious and downright dangerous, she is always Julie, the sum of all these parts and more.

Credit must also, of course, go to Caceres who’s found the right balance of traits to make each character credible, but found the right measure and balance between them, so that their relationships are, too. For example, Christine proves both a motherly and rivalrous figure for Julie; in at least one scene, almost at once. Better yet, it flows in both directions: Christine’s longing for marriage and, presumably, family, are echoed in her maternal instincts towards Julie, sometimes arising in spite of herself and Julie’s double-dealing. Damien Cooper’s lighting is, by turns, hard and clandestine, matching the varying moods of the piece. The Sweats’ (alias, Pete Goodwin’s) composition and sound design can be felt as well as heard, assailing the ears and solar plexus with a blistering, almost eviscerating power.

Stone, Caceres and cast, by design and deliberation, or happy accident, have forged a winning alliance. Rather than merely tamper with a classic, nibbling ’round its edges like an indiscriminate mouse gnawing at a grand fromage, Stone has had the sense to make something substantially new and very much his own, out of something vintage and venerable. (Truth be known, stylistically at least, he and Caceres have probably been influenced by, or drawn on, Hitchcock, or Underbelly, as much as Strindberg.) It’s a similar kind of homage one finds in, say, opera, in which a respected text is given a makeover. In my libretto, he need make no apology for that. This time, this Stone can remain unturned.

You may’ve already seen or might yet see a production as good this year, but I sincerely doubt you’ll see one better. If there was a deliberate or inadvertent mistake of any kind, I couldn’t pick it. Miss Julie is missing nothing, from gutsy aural landscape to its blood-bathed denouement. Complexity and nuance are rarely communicated this well, on the page or on the stage.

The details: Miss Julie plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until October 6. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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