By Simon Fearn
For their debut production, Pitch Productions could have picked an easier play than Miss Julie. How does one take a play with potentially the most misogynistic preface known to man (read it and blush) and make it palatable for a student audience? Director Isabelle Culkin and her team have responded by flipping the entire play on its head. Whereas Strindberg seemed to see Miss Julie as symbolic of a ‘degenerate aristocracy’, Culkin and co. see her as a victim of sexual assault, ironically seeking comfort from her attacker in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
This interpretation is largely made possible by the two leads. Eliza Cummings-Cove as the eponymous aristocrat was stellar. She was particularly brilliant at capturing Julie’s youth—petulant from the start, yet with an intense and trusting gaze that had a heart-breaking naivety about it. In her entrance after her assault, she managed to say so much without speaking, and her portrayal of the immense trauma Julie suffers in the latter half of the play was utterly believable.
Whilst Cummings-Cove does all in her power to ground the audience’s sympathies with Julie (in spite of her occasional moments of aristocratic hauteur), Luke Maskell has made Jean as repellent as possible. His reptilian turn, never far away from a slimy arrogance, leaves the audience in no doubt as to whose side they should be on.
This is not to say that Maskell’s Jean is purely a monster. His embarrassment when Miss Julie begins to make advances on him is temporarily endearing, and he proves that Jean can be very charming. Unlike Cummings-Cove, however, sometimes the transitions in his character were a little too sharp. He veered from scorn to tenderness a little too rapidly, although admittedly this vacillating between passion and hate is the basis of Jean and Julie’s relationship.
The only real problem with this production is its uncomfortable generic uncertainty. The set was a beauty to behold, yet its combination of a naturalistic servant’s quarters in front of an impressionist backdrop was symptomatic of an uneasiness about naturalism throughout the play. Cummings-Cove’s performance was most definitely naturalistic, yet the bizarre interlude of the ensemble’s song and dance seemed to jar with the rest of the production, despite being very effective in its own right.
Nevertheless, there were other ways in which the performance benefited from avoiding whole-hearted naturalism. The choice of The Assembly Rooms Theatre, rather than a smaller venue which may have lent itself to a more intimate production, was a great decision. The amount of unoccupied space throughout most of the play gave the action an almost expressionist quality, and sometimes led us away from the specifics to focus on the wider ideological stakes.
You are likely to spend a fair amount of this production wincing and gasping at the many truly shocking moments Pitch Productions has in store for you—Culkin’s direction certainly doesn’t pull any punches! Miss Julie is a too complex play to offer the same level of whole-hearted joy and heartbreak as Woman in Mind, or the visceral emotion of That Face. Yet you will find yourself wrestling with the issues that both Strindberg and Culkin want to highlight, and you’ll be preoccupied with Jean and Julie’s power struggle long after the curtain falls. To make a 19th Century play speak so powerfully about uncomfortably modern issues of sexual assault is a magnificent achievement. Miss Julie was a risk worth taking, and this highly original adaptation has set the bar high for the rest of Pitch Production’s output.
‘Miss Julie’ will be performed until Fri 18 Nov in The Assembly Rooms Theatre, Durham. Book your tickets here.
Photographs: Isabelle Culkin