Review: Miss Julie

Davina Moss 6 December 2011

Miss Julie

Corpus Playroom Mainshow – 7pm, until Sat 26th Nov

4/5

The eponymous Miss Julie is undoubtedly one of the great female roles of the late 19th century – a woman brimful of humanity, who combines naivety and cynicism, bitterness and aspiration, a deep hatred and yet passionate desire for men: she’s one of the hardest roles for a young woman to really get right. Aged 25 and yet so much older than her years, it’s a big ask for any student actress. So it was a complete delight to see Genevieve Gaunt so thoroughly portray every contradictory, frustrating, confused-yet-confusing, horrifically loveable part of her. Gaunt used every muscle in her face and every inch of her limbs, and was by turn theatrical, bashful, foolishly overconfident and heart-breakingly young. She was captivating. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. There’s so much potential for such a role to fall flat, to not live up to the expectations of the writing, to seem forced, but Gaunt dodged all these obstacles and offered up an honest, frank portrayal of a highly complicated woman.

It’s only a three-person ensemble and I wouldn’t want to suggest that Gaunt’s performance in any way overshadowed the other two. George Johnston’s Jean is as contradictory as Gaunt’s Julie – one moment Machiavellian, the next horrifyingly tender, a detailed portrait of a man trying and failing to smash the class ceiling he lives under. Occasionally his delivery slipped into childish near-whining, but for the main his use of vocal tone was the making of the character – encircling Miss Julie with a combination of puppyish faux-sincerity and spine-tingling seductive flatteries. The chemistry between them was palpable, especially in the close stillness of the Corpus Playrooms, and Johnston used this to great dramatic effect. When he looked at Gaunt with hunger in his eyes, the audience were terrifyingly unsure as to whether it was her body or her wealth he was more desperate to plunder. More impressively, perhaps, he manages to hold an equally believable but far less impassioned bond with Megan Roberts’ fresh-faced Christine. Jean’s long-suffering fiancee is another example of Strindberg’s inability to allow an audience to ever truly like a character, and Roberts played this eloquently – while appearing the simple hardworking maiden in the play’s opening scenes, her slightly shrill tone and upright stance prefigures the unrelenting philosophies she will later preach. It is she who nails the coffin of the play’s final tragedy, cutting off the lovers’ escape route, with just the hint of an un-Christian smile. It’s electric.

There were first night hiccups. Quite a few, actually: a scene change that went on artificially long, a costume that seemed designed specifically to catch on everything on set and a couple of botched lines. But these things will be cleaned up, and the fact that they couldn’t cut the amazing atmosphere that director Celine Lowenthal has created says a lot: Miss Julie is truly a triumph.

Davina Moss