Published in the Guardian Citizens Theatre Three stars
IT'S the morning after the night before. Louise Brealey's Julie is one part elated, one part exposed. She's a titled lady who's had it off with an employee (in Zinnie Harris's salty translation, he is a servant, she a "servant's fuck"), and the thrill of the conquest is now doing battle with the terror of scandal.
Keith Fleming's John is sitting smugly in one corner of the kitchen, a man sexually sated and expectant of social betterment, as she pours him a glass of wine. Except, rather than offer a ladylike top-up, she lunges the bottle towards him and tips it from a great height. Fleming looks on, perplexed, as the wine splashes about him. It is a gesture that encapsulates Brealey's interpretation: her Julie is a push-pull paradox of generosity and aggression, civility and rage, a woman deeply at odds with herself.
She's as compelling as a car crash, yet there's something missing. August Strindberg's late 19th-century drama is an electrifying dance of opposing forces. On one side, we have Julie, socially privileged and emotionally needy. On the other, we have John, a humble valet with an earthy assurance. Julie sees dangerous animal sexuality in him, John sees ferocious upper-class authority in her.
And it's that authority Brealey underplays. She has brief moments of haughtiness, but much longer periods of vulnerability. Physically and vocally fragile, she barks her commands in petulance rather than entitlement. She seems brittle and childlike, not to the manor born.
The real power lies with her staff. Jessica Hardwick's Christine is steely faced, stoic and dependable. Fleming's John is full of bravado and swagger, but never so wayward as to undermine his place in the pecking order. The pair show each other a cautious respect, keeping their distance despite their plans to marry. They are their own people – and when Brealey enters, it is on their terms. She seems small in their presence. Not only do they own the kitchen, which is their territory, they also own the stage – a Scandi-grey set by Neil Haynes.
This all means, despite Harris's update to a world of 1920s industrial strife where the options for economic advancement are either strike action or marrying into money, the play becomes less about social inequality than the story of a wealthy woman's psychological breakdown. You wouldn't expect the sexual and political extremes of Yael Farber's post-apartheid Mies Julie, but Dominic Hill's short, sharp production, for all its jumpy passions, is more domestic than universal.