★★★☆☆ Kip Williams is a directorial mastermind, but an inconsistent adaptation lets Strindberg down.

The Sumner, Southbank Theatre
April 22, 2016

Australian theatre is a remarkably fertile crucible for producing a particular breed of director: inventive, provocative, high achieving, and perhaps most notably, young. Influenced and even mentored by the elder statesmen of the Australian stage, like Andrew Upton, Neil Armfield and Michael Gow, a blazing cluster of bright young things still in their 20s and 30s, (Malthouse’s artistic director Matthew Lutton, former Belvoir artistic director Ralph Myers, Helpmann-winner Simon Stone, to name just a handful) have graduated from the low-budget, small-scale venues where they cut their teeth and are now commanding major companies with equally major funding.

Arguably one of the most exciting of these young directors working in Australian theatre today is Kip Williams. At just 29, his list of credits and awards belie his age, but beyond the laurels of his C.V., Williams has repeatedly shown an intense intelligence in his directing, and an impressive capacity for complexity. 

Robin McLeavy

In March last year, his visually spectacular production of Suddenly Last Summer for Sydney Theatre Company, combined live action with real-time video projections to capture the smallest nuances of his actors’ reactions. Last July, his staging of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, also for Sydney Theatre Company, once again showcased his ability to meticulously manage a scene, with an almost microscopic attention to detail.

Williams’ latest show, for Melbourne Theatre Company based on August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie, explores a story that theatre-makers have repeatedly been drawn to, both for its narrative riches and its licence to shock. Miss Julie (Robin McLeavy), the daughter of a wealthy Count in an age where changing attitudes on gender, class and human rights threaten to end the aristocracy, flirts with her father’s valet, Jean (Mark Leonard Winter), emboldened by the booze and dancing of a midsummer’s eve party. In addition to the scandal of a woman of her standing fraternising with the hired help, Jean is also a taken man, fiancé to the household’s cook, Kristin (Zahra Newman). In a night of dangerous abandon, power games and sexual risk, Miss Julie reveals the mental fragility brought on by her apparently privileged life.

For this production, Williams has shown himself to be a true protégé of Andrew Upton, turning his hand to adaptation in addition to direction. Expectations of this new staging have been understandably high, given the superb pedigree of Upton’s skill with foreign plots, but unfortunately, Williams’ attempt is not the triumph many were expecting. 

Robin McLeavy and Mark Leonard Winter

There are some clumsy choices with the treatment of this plot that perhaps hint at Williams’ inexperience as a writer. There’s a wearisome amount of swearing and  a contemporary vernacular that pushes abrasively against the social dynamic of the period under examination, but perhaps most problematic is the wild pendulum swing from one theme to the next. Class, gender, feminism, depression and suicide, self-worth and the ego, the incompatibility of our animalistic urges and our societal responsibilities, all come under the microscope, but in a piecemeal, inconsistent way that never fully leads to a resolution or epiphany. 

Despite these challenges, the cast delivered solid performances, no doubt a reflection of Williams’ brillance as a director. McLeavy, tasked with the most hard-won characterisation, managed to navigate this roller-coaster dramatic arc with impressive clarity. Leonard Winter did what he could to keep his character on the rails, but Jean’s metamorphosis from plucky, opportunistic man-servant to dead-eyed, blood-spattered loon was altogether too implausible to completely salvage. Newman offered the most affirming performance of the evening as the level headed cook Kristin, providing a counterpoint of realism for the sexual and emotional hyperbole of Miss Julie and Jean, although the cute pep-talk delivered at the play’s cadence felt like an unlikely (and unnecessary) moment.

Visually this production is unquestionably impressive. Williams has already forged important collaborations which have begun to give his work a signature feel. Designer Alice Babidge and lighting designer Paul Jackson have both provided their skills to the task of realising Williams’ vision in the past, and the stellar results for MTC are a credit to these fruitful partnerships.

Mark Leonard Winter and Zahra Newman

Set faithfully in late-1800s Sweden, this production builds on Williams’ previous experiments with theatre-film hybrids. A network of cameras offered a cinematic rendering of the activity on stage, simultaneously projected overhead. Sometimes the action recessed into the shadows out of view, so the connection to the characters was maintained solely by what was seen on screen. 

It’s a striking use of technology that makes a valid nod to the popularity of this kind of multimedia construction in Europe and the States while also aligning with Williams’ penchant for intricacy. The choreography between the blocking onstage and the deft cinematography is an impressive feat, but while it might be easy for Williams to keep all these plates spinning, it poses an issue of information overload for us mere mortals in the audience. At times, rather than offering us a valuable level of additional detail, the theatre and the film both vied for attention, each sapping the power of the other until it was hard to discern which offered the more important perspective.

Of course, with a format that is largely experimental some aspects are bound to be weak, and an artist should have the chance to fail without being branded a failure. But in many ways, Strindberg’s pathological study of societal prejudice across the class divide, with its tangle of psychological minutiae to unriddle, should have been the perfect fit for Williams’ brand of thoughtful direction. Despite Miss Julie’s narrative strengths, Williams’ solid-gold track record, a superb creative team, invested performances and a clearly sizable spend, this production manages to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Melbourne Theatre Company present Miss Julie until May 21.


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