Well, it’s here: one of the shows that stoked so much recent controversy in the theatre world, Miss Julie (By Simon Stone After August Strindberg) has opened at Belvoir. Despite the anger towards Stone for his penchant for rewriting the classics, Miss Julie hasn’t, as feared, heralded the downfall of Australian theatre. In fact, it’s pretty awesome.
Miss Julie (Taylor Ferguson) is a 16-year-old girl whose life “on a pedestal” is choking her. Her father could be the next leader of his political party, but Julie just wants to be a normal teenager. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is Julie’s security escort, easily double her age (if not more), and dreams of life in the upper class. He wants in to the elusive “club” – the club of wine-drinking, suit-wearing white-collar bourgeoisie.
Miss Julie is about the seduction and downfall of a young woman by an older man. It’s a tale we all know, probably a little too well, but there is something so disquieting about seeing it in a modern setting. It’s familiar. It’s far too familiar.
In two brutal, pared-back acts, the relationship between the two develops and derails, while Jean’s fiancé Christine (Blazey Best) is swept helplessly along in the force of their desperation. Ultimately, it is a story about ordinary people trying to come to terms with their lot in life. It is unnerving and completely relatable.
Blazey Best, Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson deliver spectacular performances. Ferguson in particular, who makes her stage debut as Julie, is very good, emanating both teenage bravado and complete vulnerability. Stone’s script is also excellent, where less is more, and the short, clipped dialogue is dripping with subtext.
The sound design by The Sweats effectively creates foreboding. Much of the sound design can only be described as non-melodious music, and is instead simply sound designed to elicit a reaction or mood. The set by Robert Cousins is beautiful and stark, referencing both an upper-class house, a cheap motel room, and somewhere that seems a lot like limbo.
The ending of the play (which, by the way, Stone has changed) would run the risk of being melodramatic if it were handled any less seriously than it is by the actors and director Leticia Cáceres. Cáceres teases out the tension so delicately that even the most cynical theatre-goer will be holding their breath. Her direction is understated, and the production navigates the risks of melodrama in the rewritten climax because of this.
Miss Julie is a strangely enjoyable and disquieting piece of theatre. Let the theatre purists decry Stone’s adaptations. If this is the future of Australian theatre, we could do a lot worse. Miss Julie will blow your socks off. Go see it. Now.