Vanessa Kirby is electric but Julie fails to shock
Polly Stenham said in an interview that she wanted her new play to show the ‘dark heart of liberalism’ and to ‘go for the jugular’. So did the audience leave the the National’s Lyttleton Theatre reeling with shock? I’m afraid not. If Ms Stenham wants to shock the white liberal middle class National Theatre audience, she’s going to have to try a lot harder.
Julie, played brilliantly by Vanessa Kirby, is a privileged white woman in her thirties who’s clearly been given everything she’s ever wanted except love. She’s used to ‘taking’, including taking from her servants whom she sees as possessions.
She affects to talk to the servants as equals but doesn’t really see them that way. So the ‘help’, powerfully played by Thalissa Teixeira, thinks her mistress is her friend but gets a rude awakening.
Julie wants the chauffeur Jean, a nicely judged performance from Eric Kofi Abrefa, for his body but he has his own agenda, looking to use her as a step up society’s ladder.
So how much of ‘the dark heart of liberalism’ is exposed? I suspect we know there is still a big gap between entitled rich and exploited poor, despite the fact that we’re all on first name terms. There is no real shock in a relationship between a powerful woman and her male servant or between the rich who take and the poor who are taken from. Making the two servants black immigrants provides echoes of the western empires’ treatment of their colonies but a liaison between a white woman and a black man is hardly shocking.
There’s a wild party going on in the background of the early part of the play that uses the Lyttleton space well, but it’s very tame, as is the sexual coupling.
Perhaps what is exposed is that we don’t really care about people. Certainly the audience seemed to find the terrible treatment of a pet bird, which appears in Strindberg’s original Miss Julie, much more shocking than anything that happens to the human beings.
Vanessa Kirby, Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell have created a monstrous but at the same pathetic character
We’re left with a portrait of two self-centred cold hearted people for whom it’s hard to feel any compassion. Tom Scutt’s wide open set has an appropriately bright, sterile feel.
Maybe if the play had been longer (it lasts less than an hour and a half), we could have found out more about the two main characters and then maybe we would have felt more. Maybe it just needed more development in a smaller space.
Having said that, Julie is worth seeing. In their portrayal of a privileged western woman whose blinkered life of drugs, drink and sex is on a downward trajectory, Vanessa Kirby, Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell have created a monstrous but at the same pathetic character that is actually shocking. Vanessa Kirby is able to behave like a wild child while still showing the underlying brittleness. When Julie starts to realise that she is not as in control of the people around her as she thought and that her actions have consequences, Ms Kirby’s portrayal of her collapse is powerful.
There was a mixed response from the critics but no-one seemed overwhelmed by Julie.
Others gave it three stars but didn’t like the update. The Telegraph said the ‘vital sense of societal transgression piling in on top of psychological flaws is lacking’ and The Independent said, ‘the dramatic stakes are lowered.’
‘The play struggles to make the class transgression feel dangerous,’ said BroadwayWorld.
On the other hand there were some four star reviews. WhatsOnStage called it a ‘sleek, satirical update’ and The Stage described it as ‘brilliant’.
All eyes were on Vanessa Kirby in the title role. Radio Times said she gave a ‘virtuoso performance’. The Guardian praised her ‘genuine pathos’. ‘Kirby excels’ agreed The Independent.
The Observer’s three star review said, ‘as a brave and peculiar character study, this is extraordinary. Both witty and vicious. Vanessa Kirby’s Julie is panic and scorn.’
Julie continues at the National Theatre until 8 September 2018
Watch Julie reviewed on One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube