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“To torture yourself like this is a luxury.”

23 August 2018 | Emily May

The latest production to grace the stage of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in London is “Julie” starring Vanessa Kirby, an adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 “Miss Julie”. Both plays explore comparable themes of female hysteria and the battle of the sexes, but writer Polly Stenham’s and Director Carrie Cracknell’s modern day interpretation is so cleverly placed in a contemporary context, that those unfamiliar with Strindberg’s original may struggle to believe that the play in fact has a 19th Century counterpart.

Julie follows the story of the eponymous protagonist, the wayward daughter of an affluent father, on the eve of her birthday. Consumed by a decadent lifestyle of sex, drugs and partying, and recently broken hearted, Julie falls into an ill-advised, one-night affair with her father’s chauffer Jean, and their conversations escalate from sexual flirtations to thoughts of running away to Cape Verde, and eventually suicide.

Vanessa Kirby in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

It’s a tumultuous relationship, which plays out over the course of one night, and, whilst set in a microcosmic world, explores endless contemporary and universal themes. There are toxic battles between the sexes, the classes and also ethnicities, as the two black characters are both in service roles, raising issues around the history of slavery, and how it still affects race relations today.

Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

Most prevalently, the play also explores the very contemporary issue of the glamorization of mental health issues, which is epitomised by John’s line “to torture yourself like this is a luxury.” The acceptance, and even romanticism of the “tortured artist” trope, of the wealthy abusing substances and themselves in their debaucherous lifestyles, is perpetrated and almost celebrated by countless media outlets (Kirby plays many similar characters onscreen, and it seems to be becoming her specialty, just think of her portrayal of Princess Margret in Netflix series The Crown). The audience may begin the play idealizing Julie, wishing that they could live a similarly wild and careless lifestyle, but by the end of the story, there is no doubt that her self-destructive impulses are not to be envied.

Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa in Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is a particularly impressive backdrop to the action. A stark white kitchen set up – with what seems like an endless amount of inbuilt dishwashers! – fills the entire stage, giving the show a decidedly modern aesthetic from the moment the curtain lifts. Throughout the duration of the play, the bright, futuristic cleanliness is gradually sullied by stains, marks and mess, which cleverly metaphorically reflects the psychological demise of the play’s protagonists.

Julie at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

But the real treat is what lies behind the domestic scene. As Julie’s party kicks off at the beginning of the play, a partition lifts to reveal the function room behind, which is filled with a palpable hotbed of revelers, causing havoc, gyrating and intertwining to the sound of intense electronica. Pulsating lights transport you to past experiences, nights of bad decisions and excessive alcohol, and stumbling, passed out partygoers, that for some of the audience members, are all too relatable.

Julie will be screened to cinemas around the UK on 6 September 2018. To find the closest screening to you visit the National Theatre website.
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