By Ryan Oakley
To see KICK‘s production of “Miss Julie: Sheh’mah” – the adaptation of Strindberg‘s play about sex between the upper and lower classes— I wore a two thousand dollar suit, a five hundred dollar shirt and a pair of seven hundred dollar shoes. My date wore jeans and a sweater: An ensemble that cost as much as my socks and much less than my tie.
Yet Shalome has money and no job, being a jet-setting creature of leisure and a blaxican American democrat, while I am, in everything except my politics and attire, decidedly working class. Not to mention broke and white.
These things may seem irrelevant. Yet it is precisely this blurring of social lines that makes it difficult to relate to an 1888 Swedish play about class. Just how does one render “Miss Julie” relevant to the times and land we presently live in? As radical as Strindberg’s play once was, it’s now in danger of becoming quaint.
For political art, this is a mortal danger.
The playwright, Tara Beagan, sought to take Strindberg’s script and “shape it into something that would live and breathe here in Canada.” She incorporates race relations (“sheh’mah” is a Ntlakapamux word for whitey) and the servants are exclusively native while the masters are exclusively white.
Ms. Beagan has seemingly made a wise decision. Not only does race remain static even as class becomes fluid, the accusation and/or memory of racism hits a nerve in the Canadian psyche. By incorporating it into the play, one would hope that “Miss. Julie” would become as shocking and relevant as it once was. That it would become modern.
Sadly, it does not.
Ms. Beagan, is let down by either the source material or her loyalty to it. Her version of “Miss Julie” takes place in what could be the sixties or the twenties but could not be 2008. Whenever it takes place, it is safely in the past. Thus, it’s not really our business.
To succeed, this play needs to create fidgeting discomfort. The audience’s psychic defenses must be stripped aside and the truth made clear. Yet, with this play, we are allowed both race and class privilege’s most enduring defense – That it’s all in the past.
Taking place in a single night and in a single setting –a kitchen — “Miss Julie” revolves around the relationship between a male servant and a party-mad Count’s daughter. As such, it could have been better updated. Miss Julie could quite easily be a Paris-Hilton-style Rosedale lawyer’s daughter, and Jonny an immigrant manservant. Or any worker and boss caught between lust and economy. Though class, as a measure of power, has been flushed down the toilet of history, money still floats atop its surface.
In spite of these handicaps, “Miss Julie: Sheh’mah” occasionally starts to succeed. When the dialogue is fast and conversational, it jumps to life and even looks ready to walk around. But before it gets fully off the floor, it falls flat. The play is constantly interrupted by interminable speeches, which only illustrate what the conversation already has. Some faith in the audience would go a long way. This play has none and it goes nowhere.
My date described the play as repetitive. It keeps rotating through the same emotions: The angry part, the flirty part, the sad part and then speeches. When the play actually unifies its emotions –usually during its physical scenes– it becomes interesting.
But these brief and rare moments fail to rescue it. “Miss Julie: Sheh’meh” is boring. It recycles itself, bludgeons when it should poke and fails to speak effectively to its subject. Like a drunk, it says too much, too loudly and about too little. When it finally makes its point, you wonder why anyone would bother.
The actors can’t be completely blamed but they need to take a share. They lacked subtlety. When unsympathetic they are too unsympathetic, when sympathetic they are too sympathetic. Jonny and Miss Julie have lots of blacks and whites but too few shades of grey. They have no emotional center. It’s just one blunt feeling after another.
Gail Maurice, who plays Christie Ann, is an exception. Her character, who is usually asleep in the next room, is a stoic defender of propriety. One senses this wisdom is hard-earned but she delivers no speech to explain it all. She has a sense of mystery and solidity that is lacking in the other characters. The play’s most effective scene is delivered by her as she washes and prepares for bed.