Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner's Fräulein Julie opened at the Schaubühne in September 2010 and it has finally made its way to London at the Barbican Theatre. The idea of the show is that we follow the character of Kristin rather than the two protagonists. The story that thus emerges is created on stage level in a series of beautifully meticulous sets, a kitchen, hallway, a bedroom, and composed exquisitely on live digital video on a large screen above the set. We see Kristin readying the kitchen for the evening meal, hear her thoughts reflecting on the world, getting out of the way when Jean and Julie begin their flirtation, but listening in, spying on them, the next morning overhearing their post-coital plans and, finally, coming in to see Miss Julie's dead body.
I can hardly praise this production enough. If I'm honest, I've never really loved Miss Julie. I can admire it as a piece of writing and certainly you would be a fool not to acknowledge its importance, but it always seems me soured by Strindberg's misogyny which forces the plot, characters and guiding metaphors into a rather schematic shape. The two halves over-neatly pair up: Julie's flirtation/Jean's rejection, Julie lowering herself/Jean on the rise, Julie having power/Julie losing power, etc. I wrote about it a couple of years ago but could only really enjoy it by seeking out its contradictions. This production disrupts the misogyny by placing much of it 'offstage' and instead focusing on another woman, who, neglected and marginalised by Strindberg, does not bear the full stamp of his woman-hatred. And by focusing on her, it twists the play out of shape and rids it of its schematism.
This production is a kind of palimpsest, a new play written on top of Miss Julie. That might sound like a violation of the play in some sense and no doubt there will be some die-hards who want to see a traditional Miss Julie but in many ways I found the performance an oddly faithful rendering. For one thing, it's respecting Strindberg's experimentalism: he was someone reading the Paris papers, hearing all about Antoine and the Théâtre Libre, avidly reading Zola's articles and wanting to join the Naturalist movement. He was also someone reading Nietzsche - and in fact becoming his correspondent - and wanting to put some of those new philosophical ideas on stage. He revived the play himself almost 20 years later when he had been through his Inferno-phase breakdown, reinvented himself as a Symbolist writer (the incomparable Chamber plays), proto-Expressionist (To Damascus) and proto-Surrealist (A Dream Play). He was a ceaseless experimenter with theatre and this production, in continuing to experiment, is faithful to the spirit, if not the letter of Miss Julie.
But also it picks up on the voyeurism of Naturalism. My colleague Chris Megson put it rather well when he described Kristin as the most obsessive voyeur in all Naturalism and she is the natural embodiment of Naturalism's desire to peek into the forbidding basement rooms, the secret lives, the marginalised and ignored taboo relationships in a society. The cameras make us able to inspect the characters very close up watching the quiver of a lip, the movements on an eye; the camera makes possible even more naturalistic acting performances and an even closer naturalistic inspection of their worlds. Strindberg was looking at a taboo relationship in several ways: a cross-class relationship, an act of adultery, he was placing the sex act quite outside of a romantic or loving relationship as an animal act (these are the terms in which he writes) and then he shows one view of how men and women react after sex. It's a play that shines a light into dark corners and in that sense it's entirely in the spirit of the play to shine a light into the dark corners of this play and find Kristin's story.
The interweaving of digital video and audio with the live action is beautifully done. It's hard to describe how miraculously composed the images are on the screen. The lighting, the framing, the colour and texture make almost every image a beautiful artwork in itself. When I saw Waves in 2006, I was amazed by the richness and beauty of the images; but I remember wondering if it was a one-trick pony. Would it tend to make every production the same? Since then I've been delighted by how rich and various the effects of the live video composition are. In Waves the video images suggested a kind of nostalgic warmth, the neatness of the images suggesting the editorialising unreliability of memory; Attempts on Her Life (2007) couldn't have been more different, the projected images being the plastic branded mediated images of mass culture, jagged and soulless. In ...some trace of her (2008), Mitchell's adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, the work of the eye was to reconcile the chaotic stage-level action with the artful black & white simple renderings above, which suggested the disparity between Prince Myshkin's (the 'idiot' of the title) optimistic belief in the goodness of people and the scheming, money-grabbing, cynicism of the world around him. Look down and you see a world red in tooth and claw, look up and you see the world as Myshkin sees it
Here I suppose I thought we were closest to ...some trace of her but what we were reconciling were two kinds of theatrical language. Above, on the screen, in a sense we're seeing a kind of ultimate naturalism. The detail, the textures, the minute inspection of human behaviour placed in an equally detailed social context. At stage level we were seeing something high modernist. In its laying bare of the device we were in the world of Brecht and there was a clear emphasis on the craft skills of the actors, camera operators, foley artists, moving between positions, swapping roles that was wholly admirable and always remained a counterpoint to the immaculately conceived images on screen. But we were also in the arena of Symbolist theatre. Symbolism, the first anti-Naturalist theatre movement, was interested not in material reality but transcendence and the numimous, the supernatural affinity of things, the mysterious oneness of the cosmos. This expressed itself in supernatural beings, nameless spirits, doubles, ghosts, and more. The stage-level spectacle of Fräulein Julie was very much that: often to compose a video sequence Jule Böwe would be playing Julie (with stoic, granite simplicity), but elsewhere on the set someone else is playing her hands for a close up, a third person is playing her back in a long shot, while the Foley artists are supplying the sounds of her work. On screen she is a naturalistic unity, at stage level she is multiplied into several doppelgängers who flit with such skill and accuracy from mark to mark that one might almost see them as ghosts, passing through Miss Julie's walls.
In a curious way, it's intensely theatrical; it struck me watching it that this would be a show that would lose everything if broadcast live to cinemas in a way that pure purely 'theatrical' shows would not. It's important to say that we don't simply watch the screen; this isn't a movie. Because we don't just watch the stage-level action; we watch the two, the eye passing from one to the other and this pattern of movements is theatrical; it's quite different from the directedness of the movie camera. Just as the work of the video and audio technicians is to combine all these various ghosts into a single, seamless series of images the work of the audience is to hold together the two parts of the stage picture: the exposed, sprawling, fast-moving, sometimes frantic, contemporary, digital, functional, multiple image of the videomakers unfolding against the darkness of the theatre and then the smooth, elegant, still, quiet, emotional, restrained, nineteenth-century composition on the screen, unfolding in thick, pale, Scandinavian light. And it also produces an intense experience of liveness: it's tense: you wait for failures. You note differences between the stage and the screen: moments where a medium shot and close-up are imperfectly matched, a tiny error of movement will be magnified tenfold on screen.
Katie Mitchell, in the post-show discussion I chaired with her, claimed that the value of the video was just to be able to inspect things more closely and, sure, that's the naturalistic part of the deal, but it seems to me that it has a role in enhancing liveness and making the Naturalistic uncanny. We see these miraculous compositions on screen but we know they are somehow not real; whether Mitchell wants this or not, there is both a presentation and critique of Naturalism at work in this piece. I even wondered if the expertise of the sound technicians were commenting ironically on Naturalism. We see the sounds being produced separately to accompany the screened images and while the skill and ingenuity is undoubted, at times it felt as though the piece was offering us laborious tautology (seeing the action, hearing the action) as a kind of critique of the constructedness of the real.
Katie Mitchell is our greatest director, I think. No one brings such intelligence, seriousness, commitment, vision and exquisitely beautiful taste to theatre production. This investigation is entirely in the spirit of nineteenth century Naturalism with its avowed wish to examine human beings the way a surgeon dissects a corpse. On this occasion she has conducted an autopsy on Strindberg's play and found out what makes it truly alive.