Frédéric Fisbach's French production of Strindberg's Miss Julie shouldn't work - its needlessly overdesigned set and invasive direction get in the way of the plot and don't help with the themes of the piece – although the result is not the car crash it could have ended up being, mostly held together by an irrepressible Juliette Binoche.
Strindberg's classic piece is a wonderful exercise in unbridled passion: the titular Julie spends midsummer's eve frolicking with servants, including a tempestuous fling with her father's valet Jean. As they work each other into a fervour over the nature of their romantic entanglement, their dreams and aspirations become more of a flight of fantasy than a real chance of breaking free from rigid class strictures – as, by the end, they return to their respective places in society out of fear of disrupting the status quo.
While normally set in the kitchen of the manor house while the party rages outdoors, Fisbach has employed visual artist Laurent P. Berger to create a variable set where party and kitchen all exist in one space, framed by sliding French windows. In the background, pale tree trunks denote the outside space, where the partygoers frolic throughout, while Julie and Jean spend most of the piece in the glass kitchen/lounge – although much of the glass disappears as the show progresses. Not to take a playwright's demands as gospel, but Strindberg famously asked for 'a small stage and a small auditorium', and there's something deliciously surreptitious and illicit about the affair in productions that maintain the close setting – and, in this case, Berger's set makes much of Jean's dialogue about wanting to appear chaste in public but passionate in private feels a little out-of-place.
There's also a distinct problem with the modern spin on things – while it befits the raucous party in the background (and there's much fun to be had with drugged-up dancing to Blondie), it doesn't make any sense for Jean and Julie to be even slightly concerned about class – we've moved on a bit from such strictures being a huge concern. Modern adaptations often use the device to uncover other themes, such as the classic South African production that cast Jean as a young black man, but with two middle-aged French people the point of the argument is lost. And while Nicolas Bouchaud is a rather good Jean, both he and Binoche seem a little beyond the vagaries of youth to let frivolous fun at a party drag them so far from their comfort zones.
While Bouchaud tends towards being distant, Binoche is a firecracker as Julie – hedonistic dancing aside, she flounces through the piece expertly, providing emotional depth and distance wonderfully. Her presence may be what holds the piece together – as most of the directorial and design decisions seem to be focused on distancing over engaging the audience, from the set, through the occasional appearance of men in Christmas tree and rabbit costumes, to the constant snap blackouts; it's a classic problem with European theatre, which traditionally favours the dispassionately observed piece of art over emotional engagement. This is further helped along by the piece being entirely in French, which I'm nowhere near competent enough in to follow without help from the surtitles – which could have done with matching the dialogue better. However, since most of the audience around me seemed to be following it, maybe that's just my (uncultured) bugbear...
It's Binoche's charm and energy that makes the piece watchable, but this is not the clearest production - the play's a classic and works well on its own back, so why the need to overcomplicate? If Fisbach and Berger's additions gave a different spin on the piece or helped develop unspoken narratives, it'd be fine, but a lot of this feels like art for art's sake – and I have a (perhaps cultural) aversion to such frippery.