First things first: Red One Theatre’s production of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, directed by David Ferry, is pretty great. It’s gritty, intense theatre, unafraid and raw, and uncommonly willing to take risks. I don’t recall seeing a show in Toronto before quite so happy to just let its figures exist — let them move about on stage going about their business without doing anything to “advance the plot” or “tell the story.” Instead, we get to watch Amy Keating’s Christine muck about in her kitchen for minutes at a time, cleaning up, cutting vegetables, preparing dishes, cleaning up again; in a rather different vein, Claire Armstrong’s Julie gets to walk around that same space after losing her virginity, alone in her bloodstained négligée, hunting for cigarettes, lost.
These long, silent scenes anchor the entire show. It would be too easy to say they anchor the characters — to think that we get a glimpse of their private, authentic selves in these moments. None of these figures have anything like such a stable core: they’re all trying on different roles throughout the play, with varying degrees of success. Their solo scenes, mute soliloquies, are just another set of performances. But as performances, they’re among the most interesting things I’ve seen on Toronto stages.
Actors comfortable to spend this much time on stage without text are sovereign actors: they’re not beholden to anything other than the requirement to be present. And a similar sovereignty, or freedom, is evident elsewhere in the production. The interactions between Armstrong and Christopher Morris’s John have an expansive quality — both savour their characters’ seductive moves and losses of control, their moments of strength and of weakness, giving both figures a physical life that at times released them from the text; Keating builds her Christine as much out of extra-textual noises as out of Marber’s lines. (The 1995 TV version directed by Marber himself makes for instructive comparison: it’s much faster, much more driven by the text, and consequently considerably less rich than Ferry’s take on the play.)
All of this makes After Miss Julie a rather unusual piece of Toronto theatre. However, it’s still a kind of theatre utterly dedicated to psychological realism. In fact, although the play is Strindberg filtered through Patrick Marber’s 1990s take on the 1940s, Ferry’s staging of it reads as something of a celebration of theatrical naturalism. The intensity, the lack of politeness, the range of vocal levels, the size of the gestural arsenal — all of those are unabashedly theatrical, but they’re employed in an effort to produce an imaginary reality, not to expose the theatre’s reality-producing machinery.
Which is why one of the few jarring moments of the evening is the show’s very opening: the three actors come on, take the protective blankets off the furniture, shaking off the dust (which, in this small space, smells distinctly like powder), fully acknowledging the audience’s presence. Then they listen to the BBC announcing the end of the war, and when the national anthem begins, they ask us all to rise and join them in “God Save the King.” And then the houselights snap off and the play proper begins. I get it: it’s a time travel moment of sorts, and a knowing one at that. The actors (or is it the characters?) tell us that they’re about to take us into the 1940s. But it’s the only such metatheatrical moment in the entire show, and as such, it was out of place: to me at least, it didn’t qualify or throw into relief the naturalism that followed. It seemed like the beginning of a rather different production than the one that actually unfolded.
What the opening did do, though, was betray a degree of uncertainty or self-consciousness about the naturalist enterprise of the rest of the show. We all know after all that these are 21st-century Canadian actors we’re about to watch, not 1940s Englishmen and women — and the show seemed to feel compelled to acknowledge that, to tip its hat to its own fundamental artificiality. That may sound like a bad word (it’s not truthful!), but I don’t think it is. But artifice, it seems to me, requires a justification — and I’m not sure what that might be in the case of this particular show. What exactly is gained by taking a play from the 1880s and transposing it into a period almost as distant from modern audiences as Strindberg’s, the mid-1940s, and a place almost as strange to most Toronto theatregoers as a Swedish stately home, an English stately home?
Marber’s version of Miss Julie is an excellent rendition of Strindberg where it stays close to the original — certainly a much more playable text than earlier translations. It beefs up the part of Christine, which must be a good thing. It adds a couple of speeches, some brilliant, some overly expository. But the most fundamental change it effects is that it turns Miss Julie into a history play. That’s not a minor revision: it’s a radical shift in what the play is trying to do. What Strindberg wrote in the 1880s was a direct commentary on his world. Marber’s adaptation may also comment on the 1990s, but it does so obliquely, through a plot set at a very specific point in history, 50 years (now more) in the past. Where Strindberg puts his contemporaries on stage, Marber recreates figures that no longer exist, no matter how familiar they may appear thanks to a long string of TV shows conserving a particular vision of English life, from Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey.
I find this historicizing impulse profoundly odd. It’s as if Strindberg’s play, being a thing of the past, can be rendered relevant now only if we make it a thing of the not-quite-so-distant past — rather than trying to discover how Strindberg’s present might be translated into our present, or into the presence of contemporary actors on a modern stage, without interposing the screen of an intermediate pastness between them and us. And it’s a historicizing imperative that I find especially strange in a production such as this, which is so remarkably comfortable with just letting its actors, or its characters, be. How does a show like this benefit from making actors speak in various English accents? Why does the music have to be period music? Why do we need a set that’s not only extremely detailed, but also displays great attention to historical detail? What do any of these choices do but locate the action elsewhere, countering the intense presence of its actors by continually suggesting to us that everything we see is taking place long ago, in a very different time and place? And why should that time and its conflicts matter more to us than the conflicts of Strindberg’s time?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy history. I spend a good deal of my scholarly energies on historical questions, and I love me a costume-rich historical TV drama. I also don’t object to stage productions that try to create a sense of place — I don’t need my stages empty and my outfits contemporary to like a new production of an old(er) play. But I do wonder what the point is. I can’t say that the intensity I’ve described above ever became an intense encounter with the 1940s for me: it was an intense encounter with a group of actors through a group of vividly imagined characters. But those characters could have spoken differently, been dressed differently, and moved around a differently designed set. What gave them their forceful presence were emotional states, movements, and on some occasions, powerfully poetic lines — not their deep embeddedness in an imaginary historical past.
One of the most riveting moments of the evening for me was John’s final speech, which comes more or less verbatim out of Strindberg, though Marber slightly repurposes it. There’s nothing historically specific about it. Nor is it especially crystal clear — in fact, it explodes the domestic frame of reference in its woolly references to a “vast universe” influencing human affairs. It’s suggestive rather than conclusive, even though it’s the last speech of the play. But it was that very woolliness, the very vagueness, the metaphorical richness and looseness, all of those things, that allowed it to leave the constraints of Marber’s historical frame behind, that even made the context momentarily disappear: John’s speech, for me, was a moment. And that, I think, gets at something that’s essential about theatre: it’s a sequence of moments. Retroactively, we might discern an arc, a plot line, a character development; in recounting the show, me might tell its story. But on the night, in the theatre, a show is made up of discrete bits and pieces — and it’s the ones that hit home that matter most.
Now, my sense is that hitting home doesn’t happen because a particular moment is especially true to the historical setting of the play, or to the author, or to the story, or even to the character. It happens because an actor, by way of a word, or a sentence, or a gesture, or an intonation, or a movement, or, sure, a fully imagined imaginary persona, makes a connection with us — with me, that is, since my moments will necessarily differ from yours. And classics are plays that somehow supply an unusually large number of opportunities for such an engagement: plays that have managed to leave their own context behind, plays that don’t need a specific context beyond that provided by the time and the situation of their staging. For all its strengths, Marber’s version of Strindberg’s classic interposes a highly specific and totally unnecessary context. Ferry’s production is at its best when it makes us forget all about that.
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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