The latest National Theatre Live broadcast at the Dukes was Julie, based on August Strindberg’s renowned play Miss Julie which follows the upper-class Julie in her affair with her father’s valet and the breakdown of her life that follows.
As with all NT live productions, the screening began with an interview with the writer and director of the play. They used all the usual buzzwords, promising the play would be ‘feminist’ and ‘progressive’ and that the creative team were aware of their own middle-class status in creating the work, trying to mitigate its impact on the result of their efforts. Yet, the play reeked of the upper-middle-class London elite.
Whereas Julie in August Strindberg’s original Miss Julie is the last of an upper-class dynasty, in this play, she was the socialite daughter of a wealthy businessman. The whole thing reminded me of how sick I am of watching the plight of rich people on stage and screen and how the ‘done thing’ in contemporary culture is to tell stories about people in London who are impossibly wealthy and pretend their lives are normal. This is exactly the kind of work that should not be playing at the National. As one of the UK’s largest publicly funded theatres, it should be more diverse. Rather than present a play about a privileged white woman, played by a privileged white woman, and written and directed by two privileged white women. If only London weren’t the centre of the world.
The whole play felt arrogant from the beginning. It promised to tackle racial issues, yet this was merely shown by Julie being white and her servants being black. There was no engagement with the intersection between poverty and race, and no criticism of it.
There were a few positives to be found in the play. Vanessa Kirby was as powerful a force as always. She manages to be enigmatic and powerless at the same time. I do hope she goes for a more exciting role in her future pursuits as Julie did not feel particularly distant from her time on The Crown as Princess Margaret. The opening party scene also works well at setting the scene although it does feel overchoreographed as if the director has never seen people dance.
The set is a cavernous kitchen in which people bizarrely disappear through dishwashers in some of the busier transitions. It feels as if the National’s Lyttleton stage is too big for this production and the play would have been better suited in a smaller venue. The back wall of the kitchen rises to reveal a living area for partying and sex, that is visible to those watching in the cinema but is undoubtedly a struggle for the theatre’s audience to see as it is so far back.
I couldn’t help but feel bored and disinterested by the end. It’s as if the problems of people to whom money is no object aren’t real problems. If anything the play emphasised the London-England divide. Those watching in the theatre were perhaps watching the story of a wealthy life in London they could relate to, whereas to those elsewhere watching in their local cinema the play said very little. It was with this play that the National Theatre failed to be national.
NT Live productions are shown in Lancaster at The Dukes, the next screening will be Alan Bennet’s new play Allelujah!, broadcast 1st November.