at the Barbican, Wednesday 1st May 2013
It’s easy to suggest that Fraulein Julie should be called Kristin. Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner’s production, which places a film set on stage, focusses around the secondary character of Strindberg’s original, as the cameras follow her around watching said cook partake in and overhear the events of the play. But it’s wrong to suggest a change in title; this is still Miss Julie’s story and the main events still happen to her. Though we are watching Kristin’s reactions, it is in response to Julie’s narrative, meaning that the ‘objective’ eye of the original play is shifted. In doing so, then, Mitchell and Warner open up the play whilst examining it in great detail, creating along the way a mesmerising, haunting piece of theatre.
Originally seen at the Shaubühne in Berlin in 2010, Alex Eales’ set here spans the width of the Barbican stage, all beige walls and panelled windows. It’s made up of several rooms, many doors and a sliding wall, and cameras are set up at various locations around it. A low lighting rig is suspended above and on each side is a small sound booth and in front of each of those a table; stage right will be used for a number of close-ups, stage left as a Foley. Importantly, a screen hangs above the set onto which our film is to be projected, streamed live from the cameras on stage. The effect is a slightly disconcerting one; it feels weird to not see directly what’s going on behind partitions on a stage, even though we can see what’s being played out on the screen. Actors wander in and out, with cameras following their every move and sound-makers downstage creating the effects to be played over the top. When performers are not on camera, they are seemingly themselves.
At a basic level, what we are watching is a film of Fraulein Julie being made live. But it’s more than this. Part of the genius of this production is in making us watch the making of the film, so that Kristin’s (Jule Böwe) role as a worker is mirrored in the labour exerted by the ‘film-makers’ here. Some supremely intelligent moments see a double of Kristin (Cathlen Gawlich) used, so that at one point we see Böwe’s eyes projected on screen before a cut occurs to show the back of another woman’s body dressed in the same clothes. Were this simply a film, we wouldn’t know any different, and our brain would perceive what it was being told to perceive; simply different camera angles on the same person. The world of the theatre, however, allows us to be better informed, throwing up all sorts of questions about fragmentation and the modern experience.
We could simply watch the projected film, but Mitchell and Warner lay the entire working of the thing bare, allowing us to find our own way of watching the piece even though the way the ‘film’ plays out is completely beyond our control. The skilled choreography – I think that’s the right word – is simply captivating, as we attempt to map each individual’s journey throughout but ultimately fail due to the sheer complexity of it all. I spent a good deal of time, for example, watching the two individuals at the Foley making sound effects, clocking every small detail slightly out of time with the visuals or wondering whether their footsteps were slightly too slow. Philip Gladwell’s lighting also pulls off the impressive feat of looking brilliant both on stage and on screen, accentuating the beige of the set with warm glows. The different parts of Fraulein Julie all exist somehow on their own, but come together to make something even more impressive.
So what does Mitchell’s adaptation of Miss Julie say about the play? Well, for a start, it becomes a fiercely feminist reading, demonstrating the way in which Kristin is neglected by her husband Jean (Tilman Strauß) and forcing her to hear the conversations even if she can’t see them. The images are always gendered, with cooking utensils and flowers featuring prominently before colliding together in the moment of Julie’s (Luise Wolfram) death.
The fact Böwe isn’t the only Kristin adds to this reading as her lot becomes the lives of many abused and forgotten wives or partners, and it’s important that she’s the only character with any real close-ups. A glazed but passionate expression in her eye reveals the depth of her tragedy, with her strength and composure throughout being one of the most deeply affecting aspects of this production. Hers is by no means a traditional theatre performance, but the cameras capture the extraordinary nuance with extreme clarity.
Fraulein Julie is one of those shows that just keeps playing in your head over and over again, enveloping everything you think about for a long time afterwards and striking a chord which sits between our emotional and intellectual selves. I’ve been unpicking moments for the last twenty-four hours and will continue to do so for a good while hence as I come to terms with the thrilling, disorienting effect the production has. Mitchell and Warner completely reinvent Strindberg’s text and give us the twenty-first century edge it’s always needed, teaching us something about our fragmented, dishonest lives as the audience is always kind of on camera, lurking behind a wall or a curtain. Even more importantly, however, it also teaches us we need more German theatre in the UK. Either that or I need to fork out for another bloody plane ticket.