Toronto theatre audiences have seen a number of adaptations of Strindberg’s Miss Julie in the past few years. The original now seems dated, but Miss Julie: She’Mah, a Canadian-targeted adaptation by playwright Tara Beagan, ratcheted up the tension by giving Miss Julie residential-school-educated servants. Canadian Stage’s somewhat less effective Miss Julie: Freedom Summer used American race politics. But British playwright Patrick Marber’s 2003 adaptation, After Miss Julie, zeroes in on sexual politics and baseline class separations, all against the backdrop of a British country home at the close of World War II. Red One Theatre’s Canadian premiere plays up the danger and slow-burning tension expertly, with three experienced cast members: Claire Armstrong in the title role, and Christopher Morris and Amy Keating as Julie’s father’s servants.
The Storefront Theatre is proving to be more versatile than its name might suggest. When we were there for Theatre Brouhaha’s Sucker, the space was a well-decorated modern living room and kitchenette; now, it’s a low basement, lit with low-watt hanging bulbs. While there’s plenty of playing space for the trio of actors, the set begins to feel claustrophobic as the play progresses, reflecting the restrictions of class and economics. The young noblewoman feels these just as much as the servants. She’s been kept well, and comes from money, but it’s not exactly hers.
That sense of being trapped is one that director David Ferry (who also designed the lighting and set) carefully cultivates. There are several extended sequences where characters go about their business alone and unhurriedly—particularly Amy Keating’s Christine, who puts the basement in order as the others cavort upstairs. This organic, almost voyeuristic view of the onstage goings-on gives the power dynamics and sexual frisson an added heft, once the strict and unstated barriers between the characters start to crumble.
Claire Armstrong as Julie is as volatile as we’ve ever seen an actress in the title role. Her vulnerability, despite her character’s elite status, is emotionally revealing. Bosom literally heaving, she plays up Julie’s desperate longing. Later, when Julie has had some illusions painfully dashed, she becomes a relentless force. Morris’s cocksure chauffeur is repeatedly checked by both women. All three seem to perceive his sex as the most unfair of any of their individual social advantages. And Keating’s gimlet-eyed Christine, who is the most perceptive of the three when it comes to the realities of their social restrictions, has her own small victories. (Certainly, she’s the most adept at staving off desperation.) It’s all grimly engrossing, and perhaps more viscerally enjoyable than we might care to admit. We’d like to think much has changed, but there’s also plenty that hasn’t. And that’s where the play’s appeal lies.