An Interview with Felicity Rhys: An Innovative New Miss Julie
Miss Julie was banned for 50 years in the UK when it was first written and has interesting things to say about sexuality and class conflict- do you think it is relevant to us today, that it will resonate with today’s audience?
Yes, class is particularly relevant – nowadays we think that we are all one class but I think the class system still exists […] Miss Julie is upper class but she talks about her dreams about falling. She wants to fall. She is always hanging out with the servants and trying not to be posh, saying “I drink beer, not wine” and “I spend time with the servants”. She is really uncomfortable with being posh or being upper class. The opposite, Jean, a servant, he wants to climb up […] Neither of the two characters are happy with the class they’re in. I think that’s something that is still relevant. You get a lot of posh people pretending not to be posh and mockneys like Jamie Oliver pretending to be quite down to earth. And with the celebrity culture you get a lot of people who want to be ‘up there’, who want to be famous, to be rich. There’s a lot of greed in society now. There’s not as much relevance with having an affair with someone from a different class – it is not as shocking as it was at the time. The play was banned because of the inter-class relationship. But when an MP has an affair with a prostitute, that is still considered shocking. It is still relevant in that way.
Even for us today, the sexual relationship between Miss Julie and Jean is strange. It is still not conventional.
No, it is quite nasty, that is, quite shocking for a modern audience, even though the master-servant relationship isn’t as common as in 1888. The way Jean talks to Julie is quite nasty, even by today’s standards; it is quite modern.
How did you go about translating this play – I understand improvisation was involved. How did you use improvisation to bring the meaning of the play to a British audience?
First of all, myself and Christina, our Swedish language advisor, went through the Swedish script and we wrote a literal translation – I worked in Denmark for a few years and so I have a working knowledge of Nordic languages and Christina is fluent – so we had a rough translation. So myself, Adam Redmayne, who plays Jean, and Denis Noonan, the director, worked through it and improvised. We would read through the lines and say them again in our own words, stand up and walk things about, ask what’s happening in this scene, and say the lines like that, and so on. As a result the characters have a real voice. They have our voices as well.
The play does demand rather a lot of the actors, doesn’t it?
Yes, it is quite emotionally draining. But it is fantastic – especially for a woman: Miss Julie goes through a roller coaster of emotions, really. It is funny actually that Strindberg is famous for being a misogynist and wrote the character of Miss Julie – half-man, half-woman. He is quite nasty about Miss Julie. But the irony is he has written one of the best parts ever for an actress.
He seems to sympathise very well with the female consciousness and being, seeing as this is the late 19th Century.
He had three wives. He seems to understand women […] We know he did not agree with Women’s Lib and there are lines about that in the play. There is a line that has been cut from most other English translations and we put it back in. We found it in the original Swedish. Jean says to Miss Julie, “I think you’re sick and your mother was sickly deranged” and he says that this Women’s Liberation nonsense is “just another kind of piety” […] It is quite complicated to translate, but once you’ve understood what he was saying that is what he’s saying, that Women’s Lib is deranged.
Is it partly autobiographical?
Oh Strindberg is definitely Jean […] Strindberg’s father was a merchant and his mother was his father’s servant. So I think Jean is very much the voice of Strindberg, like the lines we were talking about. I think the words are what Strindberg thinks about women, society and socialism. He was a big socialist as well.
The play takes place in Sweden in 1888. Did you feel that it was difficult to sympathise with and play Julie?
It didn’t make it any more difficult being set in 1888 because I think it is very much of its time. When we decided to do the play we did talk a lot about whether we should set it in different times. It has been updated before. There’s a play called After Miss Julie which is set in the ‘40s, more of an adaptation. It’s quite similar, but not a translation. There’s also quite a few companies that have updated it and we did talk about that, but we felt that if you update it you lose something. So much of the play is about how shocking it was at that time. If you put it in the ‘40s or now I think you lower the stakes. […] For an actor, it could make it easier if you set it in a more familiar space, but I think you lose the stakes – why does she kill herself at the end? If you set it in the modern day, she has to kill herself because she is mad. She doesn’t have to be mad to kill herself in 1888.
Miss Julie seems to be having a general existential crisis through the play, how do you approach that?
The only way to approach it is to not approach it from a literary perspective. We have all read so many articles about Miss Julie. I have read every translation going, so many articles, literary essays. You can do all that background reading, but actually when you’re up there on the stage the only thing you can be is in the moment. In a way that is all that matters […] I think that’s the only way to do it without making yourself confused. That’s how I approach it: moment to moment, thought to thought.
I understand this is part of the centenary of Strindberg’s passing in 1912 – there was the Strindberg 2012 event last year – is that partly why you chose the play?
Yes. We wanted to do the play before anyway and we were reading and thinking about it. And then we discovered that last year was Strindberg’s centenary and we thought this is a sign, we must do it. We spent all last year developing it and we went up to Sweden and met people who had done it in Sweden, and spoke to the Swedish Arts Council, went out and looked into all the centenary events that were going on and translated it all during last year.
In 1888 in Western Europe and in Scandinavia, this is only five or ten years before the rise of psychoanalysis. How do you feel that comes into the play?
Strindberg was quite into Freud. He was interested in psychoanalysis. He was interested in Darwinism and so on […] Strindberg said himself that the play is written in a stream of consciousness. When we looked at the Swedish text compared to a lot of English ones we’ve read, we noticed the whole Swedish text is full of exclamation marks and dashes. It’s broken up. This was another reason we chose to do a translation. The English texts were written in proper sentences and made sense. Whereas with the Swedish text, we looked and thought wow, every sentence has an exclamation mark or doesn’t get finished! So we tried to retain a bit of that. We had to take out some dashes and exclamation marks for it to make sense, but we tried to maintain a sense of that directness in ours.
Felicity Rhys will be starring in an innovative new translation of Miss Julie at the Gulbenkian on 13th May, 7.30pm
To Book Tickets go to http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/theatre/shows/2013/may/2013-05-13-miss-julie.html