Last month Vanessa Kirby won a Bafta for her mesmerising turn as Princess Margaret in The Crown. In Julie, she plays an even more reckless woman: one of theatre’s unhappiest heroines, Miss Julie.
Playwright Polly Stenham has updated Swedish dramatist August Strindberg’s 1888 play and transported his troubled protagonist to 21st century London. Stenham’s Julie lives in a mansion with her wealthy businessman father, who fails to show up for his daughter’s decadent birthday party.
The play opens on a scene of glitzy hedonism. Upstairs, beautiful young things swig champagne, snort cocaine and writhe to pounding dance music. Downstairs, a woman patiently clears up discarded glasses in an enormous kitchen – Julie’s housekeeper Kristina.
As Kristina points out, Kirby’s Julie is “technicolour” – a brilliant butterfly fluttering around the stage in a shimmering skirt and sequinned jacket. By contrast her staff – the only other speaking roles – wear black and white, the age-old uniform of servants. In Stenham’s version, they’re first-generation economic migrants: Kristina is Brazilian (Thalissa Teixeira) and Julie’s father’s chauffeur, Jean, is Ghanaian (Eric Kofi Abrefa). Adding race into the mix is a clever move, neatly illustrating how the gap between rich and poor is as vast as it was in Strindberg’s day.
Drunk and high and desperately lonely, Julie is on a power trip. She sets about seducing Jean, who is engaged to Kristina but does a poor job of pretending to resist. The night careers out of control as Julie’s demons get the better of her, and the mismatched lovers hatch a half-baked plan to run away.
Whether or not you agree with Jean that Julie’s existential crisis is self-indulgent, and she’s just “like any other lazy overgrown woman child”, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Kirby. She doesn’t waste a line as she struts and cowers in that enormous yet claustrophobic box of a kitchen – she’s caustic and pleading by turns, witty and wretched. It’s a virtuoso performance.
Director Carrie Cracknell has injected some brilliantly surreal and gruesome moments, yet this production flags under the torrent of words. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean isn’t given enough backstory and his scenes with Julie fail to take off.
In the end, the most insightful, heartbreaking lines come from Kristina, the only character for whom we feel a modicum of sympathy. Teixeira doesn’t get many words, but manages to imbue the housekeeper with a quiet dignity in stark contrast to Julie’s melodramatic meltdown. “In what you’ve done, you’ve reiterated everything,” Kristina chastises her mistress. “In your action is the whole world – of taking and taken.”
130 years after she was created, Strindberg’s heroine still feels painfully relevant, and Kirby’s mesmerising performance will stay with you long after this short play hurtles to its tragic end.
Julie is at The National’s Lyttleton Theatre until 8 September and will be broadcast live as part of NT Live to cinemas worldwide on 6 September