Revolutionary and controversial in its own time, and equally important in ours: Miss Julie is coming to the North East this March thanks to a new production by Elysium Theatre Company. In the first of a two-part interview with READ, director Jake Murray identifies the attractions of August Strindberg.
You tweeted that Miss Julie was a work you read as a teenager, and had always wanted to bring to the stage. Why?
I grew up with a father who was a theatre director and a mother who was a theatre designer. As far back as I remember all the great playwrights were being talked about and argued about at the dinner table each evening. Both my parents were very internationalist in their love of the theatre, so Strindberg and Ibsen were like household gods to us. Rather than being strange, alien, foreign writers as they are for many, they were continuous presences in our lives, so my brother and I grew up reading them, along with pretty much everyone else – Shakespeare, Sophocles, Beckett, Pinter, Wilde, everyone! While everyone else was listening to Duran Duran we were steeping ourselves in great plays – which is not to say we weren’t listening to pop music, just not Duran Duran.
I first read Strindberg when I was sixteen. Miss Julie was just one of the many plays I read of his at the time. I remember just feeling the passion of the writing, which, as a teenager, seemed to match my own. Here was a playwright whose characters seemed to be as committed to life, feeling, art as I felt I was. Where there were things I rebelled against in his writing, I found the rebellion exciting. Because of the intensity of his plays, where you disagreed with him you felt you wanted to match his intensity. Strindberg’s characters live on a level of feeling of such power you can’t help being carried away with him. They meet life head on – it’s all or nothing for them. That seemed incredibly exciting to my teenage self who was colliding with the world for the first time.
As I grew older, I never lost that passion for his writing. I read more and more of his work, and began to understand the extraordinary spiritual journey he went on, from the Sturm und Drang of his famous plays that deal with the war of the sexes to the hard-won, but painful sense of purgation and peace he worked towards at the end.
I also directed his work. Miss Julie is my sixth Strindberg! My first was a the British premiere of Michael Meyer’s translation of his short play, Pariah in a double bill with Creditors, my favourite play of his at the time. Since then have done the enormously difficult A Dream Play (Strindberg’s favourite) and a double bill of The Stronger and his late play Storm.
So why come to his most famous play, Miss Julie, at last?
Well at first I wasn’t attracted to it, as it seemed like the most conventional of Strindberg’s plays, his A Doll’s House as it were. It’s done all the time, so why do it now?
First of all, it was being excited by the lead actors, Danny Solomon and Alice Frankham, who had been in Elysium’s first production together, Days Of Wine And Roses, in which they played a married couple destroyed by alcoholism. You can’t do Miss Julie without powerful sexual chemistry between the leads, and they had demonstrated that they could play that on stage. Alice had wanted to play Miss Julie since I had taught Ibsen and Strindberg at her drama school, Mountview, almost a decade ago. Danny had been in the same year and had got together with his wife after they played a scene from it in one of my classes. It seemed the perfect show to do with Elysium, and to make the transition from small stages onto main stages.
How has directing the play changed your views compared to when you first read it?
Completely. It’s a true masterpiece. Its ‘conventional’ quality is an illusion, and actually stems from the fact that it is one of the most influential plays in modern drama. It’s the first play to treat the working class seriously, and to talk about the titanic power of sexuality with an openness that still shocks today.
So much drama, television and film comes from it, even such things as EastEnders and Coronation St. Playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and John Osborne all owe it a debt (A Streetcar Named Desire is almost a rewrite!). Most of all, it deals with sexual politics and the divisions of class in a way that few modern playwrights are brave enough to do now. It’s a work of genius, absolutely gripping, and it’s a joy to be directing.
Earlier, you alluded to Strindberg and Ibsen as twin ‘household gods’. But in theatre and criticism today, Strindberg has tended to be overlooked in favour of Ibsen. Why do you think this is?
Strindberg was always the Dostoyevsky to Ibsen’s Tolstoy, or, for a more modern metaphor, the Martin Scorsese to Ibsen’s Francis Ford Coppola. Ibsen was the genius who kicked down the door of naturalism and realist drama, Strindberg was the one who then ran with it into territories Ibsen couldn’t go into. Both were geniuses, both suffered a lot of rejection and hostility, but where Ibsen eventually turned public opinion and was eventually recognised as a giant of the theatre in his own lifetime, Strindberg never stopped being treated like a pariah, even towards the end of his life, when some were starting to wake up to his genius.
What was it that made it so hard for Strindberg to be embraced? His plays enter the heart of darkness with a ferocity that no-one was prepared for in his time, and when he started to emerge into the light, his amazing ability to experiment, to try and create a theatre that expressed the world of dreams, of the spiritual quest, meant he broke new ground stylistically that few could understand. His most famous plays – Miss Julie, Creditors, The Father, The Dance Of Death – are like being strapped into an emotional roller coaster in which the tragedy of marriages and love relationships tearing themselves apart get dealt with with an honesty and frankness that no one had seen before. Even Shakespeare didn’t go there, unless one counts Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and even then he gets a happy ending.
Its only since World War Two that Strindberg has come into focus as a playwright of amazing honesty, who was willing to enter zones of the irrational that no-one else was willing to before then. In a theatrical landscape that included the existential crises of Beckett and Pinter, the sexual intensity of Osborne, Williams and Albee, Strindberg seemed to come home. But it took the best part of a century for that to happen. Now people are revising their evaluation of his work again, seeing beyond charges of misogyny to recognise the deeper complexities of what he wrote in terms of human psychology and behaviour. If anyone could be said to be ahead of their time, it’s Strindberg. This is a playwright whose reputation only began to be resurrected in Europe years after he died, and in Britain nearly fifty years later. In rehearsals we are marvelling at how modern the play is. It could be written today in terms of how it deals with class and gender politics. Its no wonder no-one understood him in his time. Miss Julie is not conventional, it created the conventions.
In the next post, Jake describes how Elysium have been mapping the themes of Strindberg’s 130-year-old play onto the North East in the present. Miss Julie runs from March 13 at various venues across the region.