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Classic Strindberg drama in Saigon
Bradley Winterton
Wednesday,  Apr 26, 2017,21:43 (GMT+7)

Classic Strindberg drama in Saigon

Bradley Winterton

A scene of Strindberg’s Miss Julie classic drama - PHOTO: SAIGON PLAYERS

Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a classic drama now 130 years old. Set in Strindberg’s native Sweden, the play depicts an affair between an intelligent servant, Jean, and Julie, the daughter of the man he works for. The only other character in the original is a female cook, Kirsten, who Jean is nominally engaged to.

In a modern up-date, Saigon Players’s director, Jennifer Dizon Turner, decided to double up the two main characters, so that all the time they were on stage there were two Julies and two Jeans. One pair stood on one side of the stage and the other pair on the other, with the lighting switching from one side to the other. Kirsten, when she was present, stood in the middle, talking while she was involved with her cooking.

The two pairs closely followed each other’s movements, but the dialogue wasn’t repeated. One Jean, for instance, might ask a question, but the Julie on the opposite side of the stage might answer it. One major distinction was introduced, however – the pair on stage right was dressed appropriately for Strindberg’s day, while the other pair was dressed for modern times. The text was very slightly changed, too, so that the 19th century pair referred to Midsummer’s Eve, while the modern pair referred to July 4 and spoke about booking flights.

I have always felt that modernizing a classic text in the interests of demonstrating its contemporary relevance was an entirely unnecessary procedure. Anyone with a pinch of intelligence can see that Hamlet’s or Lear’s predicament is near enough universal, and anyway up-dating the production always produced anomalies in the text. The language is Shakespeare’s, for instance but the costumes contemporary, and this is invariably unsatisfactory.

I was consequently surprised at how well this version of Miss Julie worked. This was partly because the text was a translation anyway, so there was no obvious disparity between the spoken styles of the two couples. What mattered most was conviction, and the four actors concerned were never short of that. Tasha Duncanson and Scott Williams as the two 19th century lovers (for that’s what they become during the play’s action), and Elizabeth Tinnon and Devon Morrissey as their contemporary equivalents all acted with total conviction, as did Cat Stormes as Kirsten.

A particularly effective moment was when six drunken servants arrived on-stage during the time Jules and Julie were together in Jules’s room, and sang and mimed bawdy songs mocking the developing cross-class relationship. This was a totally successful, and indeed uproarious, interpolation.

The location used by Saigon Players this time, the Soul Live Project in District 3, was greatly preferable to some of those used previously which have often been either cramped or difficult to find.

Miss Julie has lost some of its original power to shock because of the lessening of the class differences that characterized Strindberg’s times. Nevertheless, this was an effective and affecting production. Following on plays such as Ibsen’s ironically titled An Enemy of the People and Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, this show continued the dramatic education of Saigon’s English-speaking audiences, and gave considerable pleasure at the same time.

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