"Miss Julie" update adds little to the original

Fri Oct 23, 2009 2:58pm EDT

Sienna Miller in Hollywood, August 6, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Sienna Miller in Hollywood, August 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It's not surprising that British playwright Patrick Marber, who wrote one of the most corrosive recent depictions of the battle between the sexes with "Closer," would be fascinated by August Strindberg's 1888 classic that broke ground in dealing with the same themes.

But his adaptation of "Miss Julie," with the action updated to 1945 on the eve of the historic election that brought the Labor Party to government, doesn't really add much of substance to the original.

Although "After Miss Julie" manages to up the ante in terms of sexual explicitness and language, its points about class and sexual warfare seem, if anything, more obvious than in the original. The story still has an undeniable power, but the overall effect feels more akin to a playwriting exercise than a deeply felt re-exploration.

As before, the play revolves around the charged encounter among the title character (Sienna Miller), a rich young woman who has been left in charge of her father's country estate; John (Jonny Lee Miller), a chauffeur and former soldier; and Christine (Marin Ireland), the religious household cook to whom he is engaged.

Taking place in the estate's spacious kitchen during a raucous party in which the servants are celebrating the election results, the play wastes no time in delineating the sexual tension between the gorgeous woman of privilege and the studly servant who is simultaneously appalled and deeply aroused by her brazen advances.

Although the exhausted Christine is in a dead sleep just a few feet away, the would-be lovers engage in a sultry flirtation that culminates with John taking her to his bedroom for an athletic sexual romp that leads them to immediately plot to run away together to America. Those plans go awry thanks to Miss Julie's emotional instability and the inevitable class differences that cannot be pushed aside.

Certainly, Marber's version traffics in an erotic frankness at which Strindberg could only hint. But the updating really does the play no favors, as it only accentuates its less-subtle aspects. Hewing fairly closely to the original, "After Miss Julie" seems more like a footnote than a genuinely thoughtful reinvention.

Still, the evening has its fascinations. In a more modern context, the psychological gamesmanship takes on an even deeper resonance. And Mark Brokaw's tense staging, though lacking the intimacy of the original Donmar Warehouse production, is very effective.

Miller, making her U.S. stage debut, delivers a respectable, emotionally charged turn that actually gains resonance from her tabloid newspaper notoriety. Jonny Lee Miller, also making his first stateside stage appearance, superbly conveys his character's complex mixture of macho bravado, well-honed courtliness and underlying vulnerability. And Ireland, so powerful in last season's "reasons to be pretty," tackles the expanded role of Christine with a similarly impressive ferocity.

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