Miss Julie, A Doll’s House, The Cherry Orchard. These are the types of plays that form the staple diet for ‘A’-Level and college drama students. Plays that are studied, explored, dissected and analysed. Plays that get under your skin. And yet, apart from doing a very enjoyable three-week workshop on a little-known Chekov script a few years ago, they are plays that I have not had a chance to work on since I left the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama back in 2002.
I’ve worked with RCT Theatres as an actor and director in the past and when they said they were interested in doing more in the Welsh language and that they were particularly keen to stage a Welsh language production to mark the 80th anniversary of the Coliseum Theatre, Aberdare, I immediately thought of Miss Julie.
I wanted to work on a play that would challenge me and the other actors as well as revisiting a text and characters that I found fascinating all those years ago. Doing a few scenes for character studies and some badly written essays meant I had unfinished business with Strindberg.
For me, one of the reasons Strindberg was considered a genius was his ability to write real people. On the one hand, it seems that Strindberg is guiding you – sometimes directing you as you work through the scenes. He almost tells you how you should be feeling. His use of language even dictates the pace at which a character speaks and thus the impact the line has.
On the other, his characters are so complex that the more you play and explore, the more opportunities are presented to you. Suddenly you are faced with more questions than answers, which isn’t always the case when you work on a play, and it’s actually quite liberating. That’s not to say the possibilities are endless as Strindberg had a very definite idea of how they should behave and what the relationship between them should be and there are clues in the text if you know how to find them.
Michael Meyer in Strindberg writes that he ‘excelled in depicting men and women in a condition of emotional turmoil’ and Strindberg himself wrote in his preface to Miss Julie that he has ‘ allowed their minds to work irregularly, as people’s do in real life.’ As an actor your instinct is to make sense of things, find out what a character is saying and why. To find your character’s ‘arc’ – the journey they take from the start to the end of the play. One of the challenges here is to fight against that. It’s about trusting the play and the choices that you’ve made and moving from moment to moment.
Another passage of the Miss Julie preface that appealed to me was Strindberg’s description of the acting style required. He says, ‘In a modern psychological drama, where the subtler reaction should be mirrored in the face rather than in gesture and sound, it would surely be best to experiment with strong sidelights on a small stage and with the actor wearing no makeup, or at best a minimum’. Strindberg wants the audience to be eavesdropping on the action of his play. He gives the actors license to be small, understated and contained. He further emphasises this by noting the actor’s ‘principal weapon of expression…the movement of the eyes’ which actors are accustomed to hearing on a TV or film set but less often in the theatre.
By demanding these subtle performances from his cast and insisting on a ‘small, realistic set’ and ‘eliminating all intervals’, Strindberg wants the audience to feel as claustrophobic and intense as those on stage. He wants them to see what the characters are thinking not just hear what they are saying. Then again, he’d be the first to point out that people never really say what they think, which gives us an opportunity to play against what is written on the page.
The play also presents the challenge of how to deal with a change in public expectations and sensibilities. What was shocking to an audience in 1888 – a woman showing her wrists, drinking beer and getting a servant to kiss her foot is not shocking to a modern audience. The language is also tame compared to what is heard on stage and in film and TV shows today but at the time was considered barbaric. The temptation is to match these expectations and become more extreme, more violent, more exposed. Many productions have used this approach, and to great success, but I’ve always been more interested in the root of why it was shocking and the context that caused the late Nineteenth Century audience to gasp. Not necessarily the act itself but the thought and motivation behind it.
Playing Jean and directing Miss Julie is incredibly exciting and although I never thought I’d be doing both at the same time, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. I have directed plays that I have appeared in before. I performed Richard Parker over a hundred times with Alastair Sill all over the UK and even at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. I have also worked with directors who have taken on this dual role.
From my experience, I have found that the best way to approach it is to get the casting right! I’m delighted to be working with Gwenllian Higginson as Miss Julie and Non Haf as Christine.
The best directors I have worked with have a clear vision for their production and let the actors play within the framework they create. They ask questions; don’t always provide answers, and often listen more and talk less. As actor / director, I have tried to follow their example and have also had to focus on getting the balance right in the rehearsal room. Not wanting to be seen to be passing the buck with a ‘do what you want attitude’ but equally not wanting to force the issue and impose my ideas too strongly.
Gwenllian has great instincts and always makes interesting choices and although we have only known each other for a relatively short time, I trust her completely, which is essential for the Miss Julie – Jean relationship. And Non is meticulous with her choices but adapts with ease to any suggestions and is happy to offer more herself. Their experience, creativity and openness have helped make this a really exciting process.
While wanting to put my own stamp on the production, I was influenced by adaptations I have seen over the years, most notably a South African adaptation I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. It was bold, bloody and striking. But what I was most impressed by was how they created a tangible sense of place. It was distinctly South African and it was definitely hot. Using music, elements of set and a clever lighting design, they were able to transport the audience. I was keen to achieve a similar effect with our production, instead using our own unique design choices to transport the audience to the valleys of South Wales.
One huge advantage we have in performing the play in the Welsh language is our own natural and nuanced dialects. By adapting an existing translation of the text to suit our own voices, it has helped us to really inhabit the characters and bring the script to life. The relationship and style of address between each of the characters is very different, and can be expressed through the use of formal or colloquial Welsh, a distinction that is less apparent in English. The use of language can also change subtly as the dynamics between the characters change from one section to the next.
With the backing of the Arts Council of Wales, RCT Theatres have made a bold choice with this play and I’d like to thank the staff for their support in making it happen, particularly our producer Angela Gould. Working on Miss Julie has been wonderful and I’m excited about sharing it with our audiences soon. I feel that we have made it our own while staying true to the text. I hope it’s not 16 years before I get to work on another one of these brilliant plays…
Miss Julie will tour to 9 venues all across Wales this April, opening at The Coliseum Theatre Aberdare on 19 April and finishing at The Lyric Carmarthen on 28 April.
Dydd Iau/ Thursday 19 7.30pm.
Y COLISËWM ABERDÂR THE COLISEUM, ABERDARE 03000 040 444 rct-theatres.co.uk
Dydd Gwener/ Friday 20 7.30pm.
THEATR Y FWRDEISTREF, Y FENNI BOROUGH THEATRE, ABERGAVENNY 01873 850805 boroughtheatreabergavenny.co.uk
Dydd Sadwrn/Saturday 21 7.30pm.
CANOLFAN Y CELFYDDYDAU TALIESIN ABERTAWE TALIESIN ARTS CENTRE SWANSEA
Dydd Sul/Sunday 22
290 2030 4400 chapter .org.
Dydd Mawrth/ Tuesday 24 7.30pm.
SEFYDLIAD Y GLOWYR COED DUON BLACKWOOD MINERS’ INSTITUTE 01495 227206 blackwoodminersinstitute.com
Dydd Mercher/ Wednesday 25 7.30pm.
Y MINERS’ RHYDAMAN THE MINERS’ AMMANFORD 0845 2263510 theatrausirgar.co.uk
Dydd Iau / Thursday 26 7.30pm.
THEATR BRYCHEINIOG ABERHONDDU THEATR BRYCHEINIOG BRECON
Dydd Gwener/ Friday 27 7.30pm.
CAMPWS CYMUNEDOL GARTH OLWG GARTH OLWG COMMUNITY CAMPUS 01443 570075
Dydd Sadwrn/ Saturday 28 7.30pm.
Y LYRIC CAERFYRDDIN THE LYRIC CARMARTHEN 0845 2263510 theatrausirgar.co.uk
Y LYRIC CAERFYRDDIN THE LYRIC CARMARTHEN 0845 2263510 theatrausirgar.co.uk
Miss Julie, August Strindberg Welsh language tour