Monday 24 September 2012

A horse-drawn carriage?

Mademoiselle Julie, Barbican, London

Having got her knickers off and well and truly in a twist, Miss Julie wails to her servant-cum-lover (ha!): ‘Do you see any way out of this?’ Well, yes, actually. Strindberg’s Miss Julie is meant to create a dangerous dilemma; the daughter of a count sleeps with a servant and, with their secret set to be exposed, decides to kill herself instead. Only, in this contemporary French adaptation by Terje Sinding, the quandary seems merely a pickle. After all, we live in an age when Prince Harry can frolic with a bevy of naked ladies and emerge relatively unscathed. A minor scandal involving a minor member of the aristocracy isn’t too traumatic these days. Hell, Hello would probably play good money for the pictures.

Director Frederic Fisbach’s ‘adaptation’ is one of those most frustrating of beasts; not an adaptation in the slightest. Sure, the text has been directly translated into French and the set has been changed. Mademoiselle Julie now lives in a slick penthouse, all white walls and clean lines and abstract vegetation on the balcony. But while the setting might look bang up to date, the text and characters remain identical. This – obviously- creates some serious problems.

You see, people don’t have servants any more. At least, they very rarely call them servants. Counts don’t really live near farms, either. Miss Julie’s problematic paramour – man servant Jean – remains, in this version, the son of a farm labourer. The references to fields and oats and carriages remain intact. Have you seen a penthouse situated in the middle of a field recently? Have you seen a horse-drawn carriage anywhere, other than a theme park? No. Just no. Yet Terje Sinding’s translation resolutely hangs on to all these references. Every other line clangs horribly and the characters seem out of time and out of their minds. They’re not living in the real world, which is pretty disappointing given this is meant to be one of Strindberg’s most realistic and emotionally honest plays.

Fisbach further confuses matters with some supremely indulgent directorial flourishes. As Miss Julie (Juliette Binoche – who looks and sounds like she’s on an almighty come down) and Jean (Nicolas Bouchard – completely confused) flirt and suck each other’s feet, a bunch of posh party-goers dance in the background. Everyone is hidden behind glass walls and everyone is miked up. This miking rips the emotional subtly right out of the play. The actors are either very loud and very, very angry or super soft and afraid. The microphones don’t allow for any subtlety in between.

In between the scenes, the guests are used to increasingly dubious dramatic effect. When Julie and Jean decide to slip off to the bedroom, the dancers traipse forward, all of them wearing masks. Later, an actor dressed as a white shredded tree solemnly walks forward, observed by a man with a rabbit for a head. What this is meant to provoke – other than quiet titters – is anyone’s guess.

The actors seem completely out of sorts. On film, Binoche positively bleeds with soul; she’s a subtle, quietly alluring and deeply engaging performer. In this production, she’s experimenting with emotions rather than genuinely channelling them. At one point, she screams in despair only to stop suddenly and raise her hands enquiringly. If Binoche was playing a genuinely unhinged soul than these kind of abrupt emotional displays might appeal. But for the most of the time she simply seems stoned out of her mind; a spoilt hippy with nowhere left to turn. She’s incredibly muted and, when she tries to turn up the volume, it just feels like a blast of noise.

Productions with surtitles can often be exquisitely involving affairs; one gets so wrapped up in the emotion of the play that one barely needs the words at all. Just as Shakespeare’s English starts to make perfect sense in a lucid production, so too do we start to believe we understand French/Italian/any language at all, if the emotional vocabulary shines through strongly enough. But here, with the actors hidden behind screens, the emotions erratic and dishonest, the action arbitrary at best and the translation downright obfuscating, not only is the fourth wall kept intact but a massive, concrete fifth wall is erected in front of the stage;  the audience is left locked outside, straining for a glimpse of the play we had so hoped to see.


Till 29 September 2012


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