By Bob Shuman
The frantic sex in Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Miss Julie, directed by Shariffa Ali and retitled Mies Julie, now playing at Classic Stage Company (CSC) until March 10, provides a contrast to Liv Ullmann’s stately 2014 film version; but, in both, viewers are left staring at semen-stained underwear on the floor. Other current Strindberg directors, like Victoria Clark and Arin Arbus, make Strindberg (1849-1912) conventional for our time—they can’t unleash him or really take him seriously, although Alf Sjöberg did so in his 1951 film on the daughter of a count who sleeps with a servant–a classic, which opens up the story, on the order of Birth of a Nation. Ullmann, who has directed A Streetcar Named Desire and can see Strindberg’s influence on Tennessee Williams, encloses her Miss Julie in an Irish castle, but her apparent lack of budget (this is really a filmed play) and two hour running time undermine Strindberg’s brevity and pace (Farber’s setting is a farmhouse in the Karoo of South Africa, and she relentlessly brings her inter-racial version in at 75 minutes; Strindberg timed the original at 90).
Farber’s other changes include making the third character, Jean’s mother (Vinie Burrows, of the sheet-metal screech), instead of his intended, and giving the idea to start a hotel, to Julie, instead of Jean (James Udom). Elise Kibler seems too young and unglamorous to be playing the title role, although a friend corrected me: “She’s not that young.” She is a tomboy, though, who still seems imprinted from parochial school, and the audience is stunned by her voracious entry into sex, not unlike when reading the reminiscences of Linn Ullmann in Unquiet (Norton, 2015, 2019), in which the author, daughter of director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2017), himself no stranger to Strindberg (Americans may recall his production of Miss Julie, brought to BAM in 1991, starring Lena Olin and Peter Stormare) pretends not to discuss the final part of the life of her father: as a teen, though, she describes wanting an older lover to keep “doing it” and when she comes, it surprises them both: “How sudden and violent it was, like shame, like betrayal.”
Udom kisses Kibler’s foot: “Kiss my foot; fucking do it!” (in The Dance of Death, also playing a CSC—the boot is kissed, the fetish Strindberg calls for in both scripts). Udom continues up the lower leg, matching Julie’s boldness. Liv Ullmann, in her film, shows that Julie and Jean are really children, which is a point also repeated in Ingmar Bergman’s corpus; in fact, her Julie, Jessica Chastain, appears to be stunted in terms of her emotional growth, because of the early death of her mother: Kibler and Udom, however, seem to be experimenting, “playing with fire” (they’ve known each other all their lives). On the evening of the annual Freedom Day celebration, neither has ever been so fearless or unaware of the messiness of love. Ali’s direction, at a kitchen table, with African drumming, music, and a ghost, however, may be one variation of Strindberg’s play that outdoes even the playwright, regarding misogyny: Farber’s reconstruction includes a death even more violent than that of the original.
Although it does seem as though women artists trying to solve Strindberg, usually in their favor, are part of a current trend, the idea is actually not new. The concept goes at least as far back as Trifles, the 1916 play, and curriculum staple, by Susan Glaspell, which is an obvious riposte to Miss Julie, and also includes killing a canary; but here, the man in the relationship is killed, not the woman. Arbus’s direction of The Father, in 2016, asked the audience to laugh at Strindberg, as she analyzed him in a multiracial context, rather than via the kind of homogeneous society he wrote in; nevertheless, Laurie Slade’s 2013 BBC production was compelling because it was brutal. New York producers equate entertainment with comedy, but Strindberg, whose play The Dance of Death, about the death spiral of an aging couple—and which has influenced, in a hasty, incomplete tally, Bergman, Brook, O’Neill, Albee, and Ionesco–while not unfunny, poses an issue for casts, because without appropriate transitions (an actor has supplied the correct terminology), his sentiments can play like laff lines: “there are no real men today.” Actors may want the instant gratification of the audience response, but Strindberg is on to something deeper; yet, this production’s vigorous actors, Cassie Beck, Richard Topol, and Christopher Innvar, using an adaptation by Connor McPherson, are only finding identifiable contemporary counterparts to Swedes of 1887; not essences. Maybe a clearer way to say this is that they seem to be playing at their roles, but they haven’t become them yet.
For a successful immersion into Strindberg-like characters, one might watch Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjo in Scenes from a Marriage, where Strindberg is quoted. What the director, Victoria Clark, does bring to her production, which also plays until March 10 (this reviewer can recall an earlier production at CSC, in 1984) is an interest in movement, literally allowing the actors to present choreographed dances of death during the evening.
The mundane questions Linn Ullmann thinks to ask her father, Ingmar Bergman, during the end of his life, in Unquiet, A Novel, do nothing to illuminate an understanding of August Strindberg, by his foremost contemporary interpreter and literary inheritor. Bergman only allowed Ullmann to see him for one month every summer–on a remote Swedish island, from which her mother successfully freed herself, in the sixties. Unspoken depicts a daughter continuing to inhabit the isolated landscape, in an obsessively repetitive text, Joycean in some sentence lengths, and often banal in the points made, along with a bad copyedit (a lack of understanding of the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, is apparent, for example). Nevertheless, her book (true in all of Linn Ullmann’s work) has been highly influenced by her father’s film techniques and writing, as well as her mother’s books, Changing and Choices. Ullmann documents a man “vanishing,” as Bergman describes it, agreeing with Strindberg, in The Dance of Death, that “growing old is horrible,” passing his artistic legacy on to an observer, whom he might not even recognize.
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Production photos: Joan Marcus
Linn Ullmann photo: Berliner Zeitung
Press: Blake Zidell/Adriana Leshko
© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.