Miss Julie

Belvoir, Sydney, August 29

WHEN Simon Stone is attracted to a text, anything can happen. In this he is reminiscent of Barrie Kosky, whose ferocious intelligence and unswerving commitment to a highly personal vision has given us some of the country’s most memorable and challenging theatre and opera. It’s impossible to leave a Kosky production feeling indifferent. One may be unconvinced (Opera Australia’s Nabucco) or transported (the revelatory Vienna Schauspielhaus production of Poppea seen in Sydney in 2009), but not untouched. And so it is with Stone, although his work operates at a cooler temperature. On the transporting side there is The Wild Duck, “after Ibsen”, which he co-wrote with Chris Ryan and directed; and his adaptation (with Ryan, Thomas Henning and Mark Winter) and direction of Thyestes, “after Seneca”. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past decade. On the unconvincing side of Stone’s ledger lies, for me, Miss Julie, written by Stone “after Strindberg”. I’ll come to my reasons later.

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

All those “after”s reflect one of Stone’s greatest interests – using an established theatre text as a jumping-off point, a choice that sets up an intricate and fluid set of expectations. These expectations will be coloured by one’s thoughts about translation, adaptation, appropriation, homage, “inspired by”, and what fidelity to an original source really means and whether it matters anyway. (A big argument right there!) You may ponder whether the piece you saw should still bear the title Ibsen or Strindberg or Seneca gave their play when Stone’s version looks and sounds so different. To which Stone may respond – and I’m just guessing here – that the piece feels the same at a fundamental level, and that’s the crucial point. (There’s probably a marketing issue here too. The Wild Duck is a great name with pretty good recognition in theatre circles; Little Eyolf not so much, hence 2009’s The Only Child, which was terrific.)

Delving down a little further, I’m interested in the degree to which audience members would be familiar with the texts just mentioned, and others like them. I think it would be fair to say few people, if any, would have read the source plays in their original language. Some keen theatre-goers may have boned up by reading a translation, but this is an area of deep subtlety. A small example: I have two translations of Miss Julie, dating from my long-gone university days. In Strindberg’s startlingly misogynistic introduction to the play he writes about “the half-woman, the man-hater”, and both my translations put it exactly that way. Warming to his theme, Strindberg says of this woman: “The type implies degeneration…” (Translation by Elizabeth Sprigge, 1955.) Or he says: “She is synonymous with corruption.” (Translation by Michael Meyer, 1964.) I think there’s a significant difference between the two assertions. The second is much more active, determined and implacable, and degeneration and corruption don’t mean the same thing anyway. It’s possible more modern translations may give other nuances. Of course Stone is not offering what we might call a straightforward translation of these plays, but what we know, or think we know, of them affects how we receive the Stone version, particularly if it’s still called The Wild Duck. Or Miss Julie.

I acknowledge there are probably many people who couldn’t care less how a production came to be or what it’s called, as long as they feel they’ve had a good night in the theatre. But for me, going to see a Stone production involves a great many micro-adjustments of perception and attitude; an intellectual balancing act. This is invariably stimulating, although there can be a concurrent diminution of emotional engagement, depending on the degree to which I feel the re-versioning is successful – a shorthand word for about a million things coming together to my satisfaction that may be completely different from your million things.

In Stone’s productions of Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there was an intriguing use of what we might call translation. The words stayed the same – well, Stone initially chopped off the final scene of Salesman but had to reinstate it when Arthur Miller’s estate got cranky – but both were played with Australian accents. This was quite a provocative directorial decision, given the status of Miller and Tennessee Williams. Not only are they giants of 20th century American playwriting, they are taken to be writers of the American experience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof worked for me (mostly) in a way Death of a Salesman did not. If you’re interested, I reviewed the Williams in March.

Stone’s version of Miss Julie, directed by Leticia Caceres, puts Strindberg’s drama of sex and class into a contemporary Australian setting. The unseen 19th century nobleman becomes an absent politician on the brink of the prime ministership. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his driver, doubling as a minder for Julie (Taylor Ferguson), who is left at home with the help while her father is away. Jean’s long-suffering girlfriend Christine (Blazey Best) is a housekeeper who cooks. Stone’s text absorbs a great deal of Strindberg’s detail: as the play opens Christine is seen in the kitchen cooking; Jean describes a party at which Julie forces him to dance with her; Julie has a boyfriend, to whom she metes out some physical punishment; the boss’s wine is commandeered; and so on in a multitude of ways. We even see for a time a pair of Julie’s shoes eye-catchingly placed against a wall of Robert Cousins’s clean, lean set – an echo of the master’s boots in Strindberg that, according to the original stage directions, are placed in a prominent position. They are there to remind us of the power imbalance.

Looked at in one light, Stone has carefully followed the original. In the overall arc of the drama, however, there are changes and emphases that shift the central concern of Strindberg’s play. I watched the Belvoir production as if with double vision: on one level seeing Strindberg’s play and on another failing to recognise Strindberg’s thesis.

Stone’s all-important decision was to make Julie just 16 rather than in her mid-20s. To underscore the unsuitability, to put it mildly, of what happens, Jean is no longer 30 but closer to 40. There’s plenty of rather grubby sexual warfare but Strindberg’s class-struggle theme can find little room to breathe here, swept away by the nasty little cat-and-mouse games (Jean and Julie alternating as feline and rodent) skittering around in front of us. It’s not easy to find a convincing way of presenting as tragedy contemporary class differences and aspirations, and Stone hasn’t found it here.

Julie is a clever, damaged, neglected, manipulative handful; Jean is an idiot who, as directed by Caceres, one simply cannot believe in. Would a rich and powerful politician hire a man so lacking in polish? Would such a man have ever been employed as a sommelier in “one of the best hotels in London” (now there’s a place that gets class divisions)? Where is the man who, in Strindberg, has educated himself towards becoming a gentleman? And would Julie’s father, so necessarily concerned for his reputation, have left her in Jean’s care? An older Julie and a wilier Jean would have made infinitely more sense to me.

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

My first thought was that Stone’s Jean is a fantasist; has to be. His behaviour in the second act supports that idea to a degree, although if he is a fantasist that casts doubt on anything he says or does, which is not useful in this play. Strindberg’s Jean, on the other hand, has prepared himself most carefully for his dreams of betterment. He’s a very astute man. Stone in some ways appears to align his Jean with Strindberg’s Julie and vice versa, but that only further muddies the picture.

In Stone’s writing Julie’s extreme youth makes her wild oscillations of behaviour explicable, but she is too immature to have meaningful control of her destiny. Her actions also eliminate another important idea in Strindberg, that of honour. She’s just a mixed-up kid, flailing around. And the ending, while theatrically effective, just doesn’t ring true. Julie might be running a bit wild, but this? I don’t accept it – although others obviously do, given the many highly laudatory reviews Miss Julie has received.

For Belvoir and Melbourne’s Malthouse next year Stone turns his hand to a subject I imagine few would have predicted. A version of Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy The Philadelphia Story, better known by many in its musical theatre form, High Society, will be “created by” Stone, who will also direct. The unusual “created by” tag suggests that not much of the original will remain and that jibes sent in Stone’s direction about authorship of revised classics have hit home. Belvoir’s season launch material promises a “radical new lens” on Barry’s play, a light entertainment involving a wealthy woman, her fiancé, her former husband and a newspaperman. To date Stone has mostly walked the dark side of the street, so the really radical thing would seem to be the promise of lots of fun and fabulousness. I look forward to it.

All of which is a very long way of saying Stone is someone who can make people care about what he does, argue about it, puzzle over it, attack it, defend it, love it, hate it, have an attitude towards it…

This makes him one of the current theatre’s most valuable assets.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney

Belvoir St Theatre, February 27

WHEN theatre practitioners talk about putting Australian voices on stage they tend to be talking about Australian plays and Australian content – what else would they mean? Well, at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre, artistic director Ralph Myers and resident director Simon Stone take it a step further by preferring to use the Australian accent on stage, no matter where the play may be set. There were no upper-class British elocutions to be heard in Myers’s production last year of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, no American cadences in Stone’s Death of a Salesman (he unwisely also deleted the epilogue and had to reinstate it, but that’s a separate matter).

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Now Stone offers Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without the perfume of southern accents. It’s a bold call, and not one that persuades unconditionally, but nevertheless the decision is all of a piece with a keen desire to make an audience see important texts anew. To hear them anew. No Tennessee Williams play was harmed in the making of this production. (We may also assume that when Stone puts Hamlet on the Belvoir stage later in the year he won’t ask Toby Schmitz to play the Dane in Elizabethan English.)

There’s a Brechtian element here. It is disconcerting to hear Willy Loman talk about upstate New York towns and sound exactly like Colin Friels. It is jolting when, in Private Lives, Elyot says women need to be struck regularly, like gongs, and to see and hear Schmitz as a present-day Sydney lad about town. And it is deeply dislocating to hear Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as if it were set on a big property somewhere in rural Australia.

Such a provocation is stimulating and challenging – if one gains more than one loses. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I give Stone the win. I’d like to see the production again and think I’d get more from it on another viewing, which is pretty much my criterion for a successful evening.

But still.

I think it’s relevant that on the night I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the sounds of the American South frequently trembled on actors’ lips before being suppressed. Those sounds, so soft and stretched and swirled in the mouth, are at one with the rhythms of the text and have an almost palpable sensuality along with intimations of decay. Think of the sentimental references to Brick’s alma mater Ole Miss; that’s as mushy a phrase as you can find. And “mendacity” – the key word in the play – begs to be heard drawn out into four distinct, deliberate, southern syllables.

No wonder the actors appeared to be attracted strongly to this way of speaking. Embedded in the very sounds are layers of meaning and yearning. Without the accent Williams’s words no longer seem quite as sumptuous, and with that slightly slack quality that makes one think of licentiousness.

Does that sound like stereotyping? Sure does, which is possibly one of the reasons Stone wanted to do away with such a rich element of the play. The ruthless excision of that element forces the audience out of an ole plantation, “I wish I was in Dixie” mentality. Interestingly, the new Broadway revival goes hell for leather in that direction it would seem. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of January 17 notes “it is saturated in Southern Gothic atmosphere” and that the sound design includes snatches of servants singing spirituals and work songs – “Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton”. Lordy indeed.

I can understand Stone wanting to run at speed from that kind of presentation for an Australian audience. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to be mined for its application to the here and now.

Need, greed, manipulation and the coruscating exercise of power within a rich dysfunctional family lie at the heart of the play. Big Daddy (Marshall Napier) is dying and doesn’t know it; older son Gooper (Alan Dukes) and his fecund wife Mae (Rebecca Massey) think they should take over; both Big Daddy and Big Mama (Lynette Curran) prefer formerly golden younger son Brick (Ewen Leslie); Brick is trying to drink his way out of a life he despises and his wife Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) will do anything to hang on to what she’s managed to claw for herself. Meet the family.

As they go around and around on Robert Cousins’s revolving set with its rainbow curtain of streamers, everyone except Brick vies for ascendency in the shadow of Big Daddy’s demise. McKenzie is a wonderfully angular Maggie, and her tense skittering about at the play’s opening shows exactly what kind of cat she is: fast, wily, hungry, not quite enough meat on her bones. Napier will be a fine Big Daddy once he gets off the book (he was a late inclusion in the cast due when Anthony Phelan fell ill and had to do some scenes script in hand on the night the media attended) and Curran’s Big Mama, by turns vivacious and clingy, is vividly conceived.

But it’s Leslie’s handsome, desperate, disintegrating Brick who is at the core of this production. In a way he’s the only one who no longer wants anything, except a drink. He hates the tawdriness of it all – the loss of his shiny youth, his football prowess, the way in which his intense connection with his friend Skipper, now dead, is cheapened by everyone. The family all talk about the nature of the friendship and no one seems to care too much about what it was, as long as Brick can get it up long enough to impregnate Maggie. Mendacity rules, as the final image of the production proves. You could weep for Brick’s utter desolation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at Belvoir St Theatre until April 7 and transfers to the Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 10-21, 2013.