Part Hedda Gabler, part Blanche DuBois, August Strindberg's Miss Julie is one of the greatest female characters ever written for the stage: like so many theatrical heroines, she is trapped in a rigorously worked-out narrative vice, but she makes a lovely, sparkler-like impression before burning herself out. Strindberg's play is still harrowingly accurate and erotic when it deals with the power plays built into human sexuality, but it shows its age a bit whenever he's flogging home his theme of hereditary fate. After Miss Julie (through December 6), a version of Strindberg's play by the British playwright Patrick Marber, removes a lot of this "sins of the father" baggage, but otherwise remains faithful to the original, on the surface. Marber sets the action in 1945 Britain, the night that Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party were deposed by the Labour Party, a political change which would have profound influences not only on the country's government but also on its theater.
The dynamic of Strindberg's play is all too well-suited to the rigid British class system, but something nearly indefinable is lost when you take the drama outside of Scandinavia; there's a certain sexiness missing, a certain hothouse delicacy. As Miss Julie and John, the servant who loves and then humiliates his mistress, Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller both work very hard to show you the neurotic suffering of these two doomed people, but they have little physical chemistry; you never feel that they have to have each other, that they are fated to collide, like Blanche and Stanley Kowalski. In her tight 40s dress and ankle-strap high heels, Miller makes a sumptuous visual impression on her first entrance, but she can't make the transition from temptress to victim; she hits general emotions like grief and self-deception hard but doesn't make them specific enough to this power-hungry but powerless girl, while Lee Miller does a broad "down at the pub with me mates" accent that doesn't at all suggest that John wants to rise above his station.
Marin Ireland, one of our finest young theater actresses, does what she can with the third role, John's neglected fiancée Christine. Strindberg loathed this character as a representation of all that is most complacent about the working class, but Ireland gives her a forthright common sense and frank impatience that tends to dominate Marber's play, especially at the end, when she briskly, sarcastically eyes the bloody remains of one of Miss Julie and John's love/hate bouts. It becomes increasingly clear that though Marber is following the outline of Strindberg's play, he is also systematically, and no doubt unconsciously, lessening its impact. A great play is so often an extremely complex piece of machinery; remove even the smallest part of it, and the whole structure will collapse, as it does here. My program listed a talkback after the performance, called "Marber vs. Strindberg." When the friend I took along read this, he cracked, "Who do you think will win?" The answer is obvious.