‘After Miss Julie’ goes Hollywood


Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham

After Miss Julie runs at the MTC Warehouse Theatre through February 5, 2011

Thursday, January 20 was blisteringly cold even by Winnipeg standards but that didn’t prevent a sizeable audience from attending the opening night of After Miss Julie and the start of the eleventh annual Master Playwright Festival. This year, the festival is dedicated to the works of August Strindberg.

Bethany Jillard as Miss Julie

Bethany Jillard as Miss Julie

Strindberg (1849-1912) was much more than a brilliant playwright whose plays advanced the naturalism and believability of the theatre through the development of expressionist drama. He was also a novelist, essayist, poet and all around nut-case. An occult spiritualist who practised alchemy, he wrote a manifesto for the liberation of women, was married to two strong female actors (although not at the same time), and is nonetheless considered by many the consummate misogynist. He challenged women’s roles in society and yet portrayed them as deceitful and weak.

Miss Julie, the play that this production is based on, written in 1888, was a typical part of the Strindberg canon. Set in the Swedish countryside on a midsummer night, it is a tale of class and gender warfare. Depending on your counting system, there are either three or four main characters in the play: Christine, a maid in the service of the count; John, the count’s chauffer and valet; and Miss Julie, the Count’s illegitimate daughter. Then there is the count himself who never appears on stage but is always present there like the sword of Damocles. Strindberg must have selected the timing of the play not just as a reference to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also because midsummer night was an auspicious occult event.

It is quite common in theatrical history for one play to be based on an earlier one. Shakespeare based many of his plays on various Renaissance predecessors. Miss Julie is based on an old morality play where the characters are the Devil, Good and Evil. This latter becomes evident upon watching After Miss Julie. Playwright Patrick Marber, almost unknown on this side of the Atlantic, but recognized in the UK as a comedian, playwright, director, puppeteer, actor and screenwriter, failed to grapple with the origin of his material, much to the detriment of his own play.

The fact that plays are based on other plays is an accepted fact and irrelevant to the enjoyment of the play even if we are aware beforehand of what the other play is. We the audience merely ignore the precedent and watch the play for itself. Unfortunately, here is an exception: we cannot enjoy After Miss Julie if we are at all aware of the structure of Strindberg’s version. So we watch while constantly comparing one with the other.

This is not necessarily bad. For example, the relocation of the play from the 1874 Swedish countryside to that of the 1945 English one gives the audience a much better point of reference, particularly when post-war music is playing in the lobby while the audience waits to enter the theatre. A brilliant touch is opening the play with a newscast announcing the landslide victory of the Labour Party and the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Brian Perchaluk, who designed the set, did an incredible job of recreating the kitchen of a typical English country house. The antique icebox, the hearth – all of these contribute immensely to our ability to fall into the action of the play.

Let me state at this stage that, if After Miss Julie is considered without reference to Strindberg’s Miss Julie, then it is often an extremely enjoyable play. The acting of all – Sarah Constible as Christine, Peter Mooney as John, and Bethany Jillard as Miss Julie – casts a spell over the audience drawing them immediately into the drama. The arc of the play is believable and flows without a hitch gradually enveloping the viewer into the intensity of the sexual and class struggle between John and Miss Julie.

But therein lies the problem. Christine has been relegated to the sidelines in order to give centre stage to this dance of seduction between John and Miss Julie, between a servant and a daughter of the upper class. This is not how Strindberg intended it. He saw Christine as an integral part of the action – remember the morality play. She was goodness to John’s devil and Miss Julie’s evil. Without her, all we have is evil and the Devil engaged in an orgiastic ritual. It is as result of her presence that Strindberg was able to create a web of subtext, something of which he was a master.

With Marber marginalizing Christine’s role, he has given up subtlety. This is evident in the culmination of the seduction. In Miss Julie, we are never certain whether in fact there has been a consummation of desire. Further, if there was, we are never certain whether it was consensual or akin to a rape. In After Miss Julie, the consummation is blatant and precipitated by Miss Julie commanding John to “Take me to your room!”

There are other changes that have deprived After Miss Julie of depth. For example, Ms Julie has been portrayed as almost a sexual predator taking much of John’s guilt (as Strindberg portrayed it) and placing it onto her. One wonders whether Marber may not be more of a misogynist than Strindberg. This, combined with the updating of the characters’ motivations, makes the production a Hollywood version of Strindberg’s magnificent play.


John Herbert Cunningham

John Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. His poetry reviews have appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, and other literary magazines.