Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: (Toronto) After Miss Julie

Hardcore Abbey
by Keely Kwok

Julie leaves, razor in hand, and John is left alone on stage polishing a pair of shoes. The phone rings, it’s upstairs calling. John, statuesque, unsure, hating, fearing, loathing, looks on.

The lights go down and someone in the audience utters a resounding “Wow”.  

Show of hands, who here has seen Downton Abbey? Personally, I’m obsessed. The intertwining relationships, the costumes, the scandals (remember Mr. Pamuk? Positively horrific!), the tension between the classes… it’s enthralling. In fact, it’s my love for the show that compels me to say that After Miss Julie is the best performance I have seen all year. 

Because they blew Downton out of the bloody water. 

Written by Patrick Marber, After Miss Julie is a version of the original Strindberg play. It takes place in July 1945 in England, just after the Labour Party’s electoral victory. The cast draws the audience back in time as they remove large dusty sheets from the furniture on stage. Christine (Amy Keating), mutters a “don’t mind me” in a flawless Northern accent and I thought, is that Downton’s Gwen??  Meanwhile John (Christopher Morris), gives a cheeky wink here and there as he sets the chairs in place. And last but certainly not least Miss Julie (Claire Armstrong), waltzes in and turns up the music on the record player. And in just 30 seconds we have the perfect introduction to all three characters. 

After Miss Julie is all about power. All three struggle for it whether on moral, physical, intellectual, or societal grounds. Julie and John clash most violently, both refusing to be the other’s plaything. It’s a thrilling dynamic too as Julie is of higher class and John is the man. They throw themselves into a rigorous and relentless dance, clashing together only to tear themselves away after a passionate kiss. Truly, David Ferry's direction of this show is phenomenal. Armstrong and Morris are in every corner of the space, yelling, commanding, and caressing each other. They share unspoken truths only to turn on each other a moment later. 

And of course there’s the sex. It’s explicit, it’s daring, it’s right there on the table. But shock value aside, what’s really intriguing is, who seduced whom? 

I’ve seen Miss Julie twice before and no one does it like Armstrong. She’s incredibly captivating and teeters back and forth between seasoned seductress and innocent child. She chooses her moments well and is one of those actresses who uses silence to her advantage. It’s very easy to be overly dramatic when given such poetic monologues but Armstrong’s strengths are in her subtleties. When she enters the kitchen the morning after, she doesn’t speak. She haphazardly makes her way through the room and you see her trying, striving, to make sense of what she’s done. Every thought and every convoluted emotion is right there in her expression. 

Then John comes in. The man who, just a few hours before, had said such sweet things to Julie, now brushes her aside. Morris dazzles on stage. He’s not the victim but he’s certainly not the villain either. Every time you think you have him figured out, he turns around to reveal another side. And his delivery! He can be funny, crude, cruel and tempting all in a single syllable. 

Keating as well is a fantastic talent. Her Christine did not hold back. She demanded as much attention and claimed as much power despite the overwhelming presences of Armstrong and Morris. And boy is she funny. Her delivery and cheek are a welcome comic relief after the restless night shared by John and Julie. And the way Christine puts John in his place! Scolding, berating and belittling him with a few tight slaps for good measure, she executed her rage with delicious precision. 

If I had to say something negative about the show, it’s that it had to end. That blasted bell had to ring and with a resounding “wow”, we all had to return to reality. 

So to all those who have yet to see After Miss Julie, I command you, GO. 

Nov. 15-30

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