Agony in the kitchen extension / Mademoiselle Julie / Barbican Theatre – 24 September 2012

25 Sep

Went with great expectations, despite what a lot of British critics thought was an “unbearably French” production.

The set looks like a rather glamorous all white kitchen extension, so beloved of the bourgeoisie living in the suburbia of North London. What looked like a blank empty space is an expression of the contemporary obsession with sleek kitchens and minimalist extensions straight out of Channel 4’s Grand Designs. Strindberg’s drama may be seen as a realistic play of its time. But in my view the updating worked on many levels. The glass compartments made out of the two parallel layers of glass doors allowed for an interesting contrast in aural and spatial terms. The opening scene acted behind closed doors, the actors sealed away from the audience, their voices transferred by microphones. The party happening on the large space behind the kitchen area, divided by another expanse of glazed doors.  Julie is peeped through transparent curtains dancing in the background, like a vision. When she slides the door to enter the kitchen she brings in the loud music of the party.  A very effective use of the party music, made tangible by the set.
Critics complained that the faces of the three protagonists were not fully visible at the start of the play. Which made me wonder when did that become a pre-requisite of theatre? The layer of glazed separation was intriguing and added frisson. Once the glass partition opened up the rising tension in the box escaped in the auditorium.

Binoche gave a much more histrionic Julie, that usual, in a beautiful (slightly dishevelled) gold lame dress that was attention seeking like her persona. She managed to create the necessary friction and an underlying erotic pulse. The little girl who was left motherless and was brought up largely as a boy was there, on display, and finally free for all to see. Her deep anxiety and impossibility to be fully grown up came through in the shattering confrontation near the end. Her chilling cries over the dead bird and the threats for Jean were heart stopping and strangely juvenile (helped by having to reflect on Bouchaud’s dry witted delivery).

Nicolas Bouchaud was an interesting Jean and despite his lustily sexy advances at Binoche’s Julie he did not convince as a young man with a dream. Dare I wonder why a younger actor was not cast to be the object of her affection/mire?

Bénédicte Cerutti was the balancing force in the first half of the play and suddenly trapped herself in her religiosity avoiding the painful reality surrounding her. Her Kristin was warm to start with and graduated to a much more agitated and impactful final transformation.

Miss Julie does depend on the pent-up frustration and the bringing to the fore of sexual politics and the warring relationship between the two sexes.  Fisbach’s direction did create enough of the otherness of each sex to make it come together and the minimalism of the set did concentrate the mind on the busy text. I do wonder if the sleekness of the treatment was seen by the critics as the main Gallic over-indulgence. After all this play is all about the absent Count being the regulatory premise. The threat of his arrival, the sight of his boots, the memory of his bell ringing. All amounts to three characters that are shadowed by his presence, a benign dictator that has the ultimate say. The escape to Switzerland or to death makes sense under the claustrophobic constraints of this large white box, a metaphor for our lust for the latest thing in life which usually ends up in killing what’s really inside us.

This may not be the quintessential production for all time, but it surely had something interesting to say about our times and Strindberg’s own motives.

Some tweets from the evening

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