THE Thames Valley is renowned for being materially rich but culturally poor, and one of the elements desperately missing from
THE Thames Valley is renowned for being materially rich but culturally poor, and one of the elements desperately missing from the local scene has been a decent repertory theatre company — until recently, drama fans had to travel to Oxford or London to get their fix. So it was a pleasure to hear that a new, young professional company has set up in Reading.
Reading Repertory Theatre was established by 29-year-old director Paul Stacey, who came back to his home town after studying drama at Harvard. His aim is to be “a regional theatre with a national reputation”, to “provoke and challenge” with an ambitious range of work.
This young, professional outfit has secured a residency at the performing arts centre in Reading College, but before you toss this newspaper aside in scorn, imagining a scruffy student hole smelling of stale beer, I’m delighted to report that a reasonable amount of money has been invested in this venue. The black box studio seats 60 and, like the bar area where you wait to be called before the performance begins, it is elegant in its minimalism.
Stacey is certainly living up to his promise for staging controversial pieces by selecting this play by Swedish writer August Strindberg. It’s the story of a free-spirited young woman, the daughter of a Count, who starts an affair with her manservant, Gene.
The opening scene showed Miss Julie and Gene clinched in a passionate tango — she in a floaty red dress and he in his workman’s boots — accompanied by the sultry bass beats of Portishead’s Give Me A Reason To Love You. This was a fabulous way to set the scene. There was so much chemistry between the two main characters that the air seemed almost saturated with it, and the choice of costumes and music indicated that this was going to be a thoroughly modern take on a classic play written 125 years ago.
The action takes place in one night. The sound of revelry from a servants’ midsummer night party echoes in the distance, and while Gene’s fiancée Christine sleeps the mistress and the footman consummate their passion.
I was expecting this to be a story of rebellion against society’s perceived roles, both in terms of women’s status and the hierarchical structure. In fact, although these themes were omnipresent, this adaptation focused far more on the politics of sex.
Before the seduction, Miss Julie was provocative, selfish and spoilt, while the headstrong and ambitious Gene battled with his conscience and desire for her. Afterwards, the roles had reversed; she had become frighteningly vulnerable, while his feelings towards her were ambivalent, vacillating between love and protectiveness, and contempt for how easily she had been conquered.
Staged in the round, the stark setting — with only a bare white table and two white benches as props — meant there was no hiding place from the bitter war of wills between the lovers. These two represented everyman and everywoman, with their difference in status serving as a device to heighten the dramatic tension.
Miss Julie is of damaged stock; like her mother she admitted to hating men, and her violent mood swings displayed a fragile state of mind bordering, at times, on mental illness. But if we are honest, most of we females would confess to living through a similarly intense mad-woman moment with a lover, usually late at night and fuelled by alcohol.
This play was thought-provoking, and at times shockingly raw. The updated script was tight and punchy, the acting slick. Valene Kane was a pouty, petulant temptress, her wildness tempered by the cool, calm delivery of Kate Gilbert as the sensible and grounded Christine. Jamie Champion playing Gene stumbled over a couple of lines at the beginning but he’s a promising young talent. In the closing scene, he displayed true emotion as he sat alone at the stark white table and contemplatedwhat he had done.
lMiss Julie continues until tomorrow. Box office 0118 960 6060 or visit www.readingarts.com