Review: Mademoiselle Julie, The Barbican Theatre ✭✭✭✭

This updated version of August Stringberg’s 1888 naturalistic play is performed in French (with English surtitles) rather than in the original Swedish. Director Frédéric Fisbach allows the audience to play voyeur as a night unfolds in the lives of three unstable and powerful characters. Juliette Binoche, starring in the title role, is both a delight and a terror – it is precisely what the role calls for. Strindberg’s timeless tragedy is a battle of the sexes, of the classes, of values, of expectations, of power, of desires, of conflicting truths.

It opens with a Midsummer night party where Mademoiselle Julie, the daughter of a wealthy count, is dancing with her servants. The audience is looking through a glass wall and the sounds are muffled; it is as if we are spying on strangers. With modern music (Blondie at one point) and a stark minimalist set, the stage is set for a contemporary drama.

Early on, it is clear that Mademoiselle Julie is drawn to her father’s valet, an attraction that is both against the rules and against norms. As the night of love and hate ensues, the two move seamlessly between dream and reality, honesty and lies, embraces and violence.

Strindberg’s timeless tragedy is a battle of the sexes, of the classes, of values, of expectations, of power, of desires, of conflicting truths.

Binoche’s Mademoiselle Julie unravels during the two hours in a fog of love, liquor, and exhaustion. Her strength physically wavers as the drama unfolds, but that does not stop Binoche delivering exhilarating moments of intensity and power – all confirming that Mademoiselle Julie is a character of many dimensions. Just when you begin to love her, she reveals flaws and vulnerabilities that are almost unforgivable. Like a roller coaster, Binoche expertly takes us on a journey of highs and lows, laughs and discomfort.

The count’s valet, Jean (Nicolas Bouchaud) quickly becomes Julie’s partner and adversary. As the director has pointed out, Strindberg says that at a certain point in the play, we end up taking part in a ‘fight between two brains.’ But the chemistry between Binoche and Bouchaud transcends their minds and their words. It is their body language that truly paints the most vivid picture of their conflict and passion. There are moments when Bouchaud is awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin, a strike of genius as Strindberg’s reluctant hero.

Kristin, Juliette’s chef and Jean’s lover, is perhaps the most tragic character. Played with tenderness and honesty by Bènèdicte Cerutti, Kristin is not just a third wheel in this story of three. Cerutti’s performance wrenched my heart and left me with a feeling of both admiration and pity for her – not an easy task.

In an interview with the Guardian, Binoche said of the three characters: “They say something at the beginning, and at the end it’s the total opposite. Emotions are very much like this; they’re not facts.” The challenge of getting under the skin of one of Strindberg’s characters is exactly what drew her to this part in the first place. It seems as though all three actors were up for that challenge.

Non-French speakers should not be put off. The emotion and depth with which the three actors tell this story ensures that you will be brought along for the ride even if you miss a line of the surtitles here and there.

At curtain call, the ovation went on and on – the audience didn’t want to stop clapping. And when the lights came on in the theatre, I looked down my aisle to see why no one was moving. Mouths were open – I think we were all stunned at the journey that had unfolded before us.

****(4 stars)
Runs until 29th September 2012
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