KATIE MITCHELL’S ELEGANT TREATMENT OF STRINDBERG’S MISS JULIE INTERVENES IN THE TEXT IN ONLY TWO, EASILY SUMMARISABLE WAYS: IT PUTS KRISTIN, THE SERVANT WIFE, TO THE CENTRE OF THE NARRATIVE, AND IT REDUCES THE STAGE TO MATERIAL FOR A FILM.
We theatre audiences have by now seen hundreds of cameras on stage, following actors, projecting detail onto large screens, adding fleshy detail to the clean, distant clockwork of well-rehearsed theatre. If theatre is so often employed as metaphor, it is because the well-oiled automatism of stage business so naturally projects a deathly, telescopic inevitability. The reason the camera is there—was there, before it became a cliché—was perhaps to simultaneously remind us of the mortality of everyone and everything on stage, and aestheticise it further, beyond touch. The intimacy of zoom and the alienation of the screen. If theatre is a metaphor for society, then video certainly stands for exploitation.
Katie Mitchell’s video-heavy Fräulein Julie revolves around all these meanings, but to a nobler purpose. In a perfect copy of a 19th century house, dressed in era-appropriate costumes, followed by five cameras and an army of technicians, the actors perform not so much theatre as a live film, in meticulously recorded fragments, which only come together into a meaningful whole on the large central screen. Sound is recorded on stage, but separately: a cellist for the music, a table crammed with quotidian objects is a simple sound desk for incidental sounds, recording booths side-stage for voice. A simple meat-preparing scene splices live footage of two actors performing simultaneously in different corners of the set: one for the face, another for the hands; the clattering of pots comes from the sound desk—and so it continues for 85 minutes. The stage is an unrelenting symphony of small gestures, a dizzying machine.
The film, contrastingly, is slow, atmospheric with diffuse lighting and mellow music. It could easily be Bergman, or Sally Potter—or a BBC costume drama. Only a few lines of Strindberg’s original dialogue remain, in the corners of our attention. We overhear Jean and Julie’s aggressive flirtation together with Kristin, as she walks in and out of the kitchen, doing her chores, helping Jean, becoming aware, then slowly overcome by anxiety.
The weakest in the erotic triangle, economically and socially disadvantaged, mute and inexpressive, Kristin remains a silent observer throughout the play—but Mitchell generously makes room for her subjectivity. Kristin’s interior monologue—fragments of Inger Christensen’s incantatory poetry—drowns out Strindberg’s battle of the sexes. Kristin’s inner world is brittle but wild, un-intellectual but given to great poetic beauty. Without resorting to excess (hysteria, violence, death), Mitchell sympathetically portrays the powerlessness of a servant woman within patriarchy. The combination of on-stage fret and on-screen disquietude, of relentless physical work and mute anxiety, builds into an immensely compelling portrait of a human being crushed by societal forces. Kristin is oppressed through her work, her marriage, her sex, her lack of education, her inability to react or even critically analyse the events. The tension is not just between theatre and cinema as forms—but between the social and the psychological landscape of the work.
Mitchell’s interpretation is almost too easily analysable: faithful to Strindberg’s attention to socio-economic detail, offering a feminist-Marxist critique via the tried-and-tested assortment of distanciating tools. But the predictability of a thoroughly coherent dramaturgy is countered by the mesmerising, sensuous polyphony of a work unfolding, like a madrigal, on two planes simultaneously: one social realist, another experimental. The overall effect is delicate and masterful, political and poetic, formalist but passionate. A treat.
Fräulein Julie, after August Strindberg, adaptation Katie Mitchell, direction Katie Mitchell, Leo Warner, translation, performers Jule Böwe, Luise Wolfram, Tilman Strauß, dramaturgy Maja Zade; Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin, in repertoire.
First published in RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012, web e-dition .