We interview Anna Rubincam about Miss Julie, her directorial debut at SLT.
This play caused a furore when it premiered. Can you give us some context?
Written in 1888, and censored even in its native Sweden, Miss Julie wasn’t allowed to be performed in England for another 50 years. The forbidden relationship between an aristocrat and her servant was considered too undermining to the natural order for English audiences, who called it “disgusting”, “vulgar” and “a heap of ordure”. Despite this, it’s remained a popular play throughout the 20th century, and the themes of class and sex has made it tempting material to adapt into other historical and social contexts, from post-apartheid South Africa, to Canada in 1920 with Miss Julie as a white woman and John as First Nations man. The play remains relevant because even though most of us don’t have servants anymore, we still understand that in any relationship, there’s always someone who holds more power
Why did you choose it for your first show as a director?
Miss Julie appealed to me because it takes place in a small window of time, but is influenced by everything that happened before we ever meet the characters. The actors have a short time to escalate the action from polite discourse to mayhem and tragedy, and allow to audience to imagine what could have been if things had happened slightly differently. As a result, plays like Edward Albee’s Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf follow a similar theme, suggesting to the audience that if they returned the following night, someone might make a slightly different decision, and the play might go a different way.
What challenges have you had in directing it?
The action of the play happens almost in real time, and the characters go through a massive physical and emotional arc in a short period. Most of what happens is influenced by the character’s histories, and so we put in a lot of time early in rehearsals researching the time period and what the characters’ lives would have been like. The actors also spent time improvising to establish trust, and see how their characters might interact with each other in various contexts.
Miss Julie has been frequently produced, so it was also important to try to find truth in what can be a quite melodramatic play. The class conflict between the main characters that would have been so scandalous in the 19th century might be lost with a modern audience, so we had to find a way to raise the stakes in order to bring them into that world. Creating intimacy has been a challenge, especially when that intimacy has a dark or violent edge. Giving the actors space to explore that side of their craft had been exhilarating and sometimes intense.
Tell us about your cast and the parts they play.
Despite being dead for many decades, August Strindberg has influenced this production. He was in the midst of divorcing his wife when he wrote Miss Julie, and his contempt for women shows in his characters.
We were aware that he intended his title character to be a pathetic creature, a “hysterical woman”, and SLT newcomer Helena Klaus rose to the challenge. Helena gives Julie strength and vulnerability in a play that demands both in increasing intensity, and gives truth to a woman who is in conflict with herself while trying to maintain a mask of control.
Similarly, the character of Christine, who’s usually treated as a rather dowdy third wheel to the main relationship between John and Julie, is played with guts by Ruby Todd.
Alastair Norgate plays John, a man who is too intelligent to be a servant but can’t easily escape his position, and his portrayal is both subtle and unnerving. Those of you who saw him in SLT’s Little Light or Love’s Labour’s Lost will be surprised by his performance.
This cast has been so energetic, and willing to experiment with this difficult material. It’s been such a privilege to work with them.
Miss Julie runs 15 – 19 May at the Old Fire Station. You can buy tickets in advance here. We look forward to welcoming old and new members back at our refurbished West Norwood home.
Photos by Rebecca Richards. Instagram: @rebeccarichards_