Julie (National Theatre) review

The topic of whether classic texts can be adapted with a more feminist lense has dominated the conversation across mediums for a few years now – is there merit in adapting the misogynistic stories of our past for a modern sensibility, or should women’s stories be written and produced without the baggage of a decidedly male predecessor hanging over them?

Julie has always been about its titular character, but the version currently playing at the National Theatre and screened last week in cinemas across the country has been updated by a female writer and director (Polly Stenham and Carrie Cracknell). It is a striking adaptation, transported from 19th Century Sweden to the faux bourgeois world of 21st Century Hampstead Heath.

Julie (Vanessa Kirby) is the kind of women you’ve seen at parties or spilling out of fancy establishments at 4am, but not one you’d particularly like to be stuck in a lift with. Except, of course, that’s exactly what the structure of the play forces us to do (a kitchen, rather than a lift), and a combination of biting social commentary and a trio of marvellous central performances make Julie an hour and change that sticks in the mind for much longer.

We begin the show with Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira), the immigrant staff tasked with cleaning up after their privileged boss’s hedonistic 33rd birthday celebrations. They are together, in an arrangement that seems more like necessary human contact than true love, and Julie is like a spectre that hangs over their mundane happiness.

When we meet the lady of the house, she is high as a kite and completely unaware of her own privilege. The play explores topics of race and class with little subtlety, but the fact that we look at those themes through the perspective of a white, rich socialite with no tact and even less self-awareness injects the show with an energy that seeps out into the audience, forcing us to question our own behaviour.

That’s assuming that your average theatre-goer has more in common with Julie than they do with Jean or Kristina, and that’s exactly what Stenham and Cracknell did assume.

The theatre – specifically West End theatre – is a privileged space, they said in an illuminating interview aired before the show as screened in cinemas, and this adaptation’s intent was to illuminate the contradictions of relationships between the ‘hired help’ and their employers.

While the sticky interactions between Julie and Jean take up much of the play’s time, just as fascinating are the interactions between the show’s two women. Kirby’s performance is magnetic throughout, but Teixeira gets her turn with a speech near the end that sums up the central tension of her existence. Sometimes, when all you have is pretence, it becomes the most precious thing in the world.

Julie is not a particularly pleasant experience, but it is a rewarding one. Kirby is a star, and both the writing and direction of this thoroughly up-to-date interpretation bring the story hurtling into modern day.