Rebooting Miss Julie

How a dated 1888 Swedish classic got an Aboriginal Canadian twist


MISS JULIE: SHEH’MAH adapted by Tara Beagan from August Strindberg, directed by Melee Hutton, with Christine Horne, Darrell Dennis and Gail Maurice (KICK). At the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Previews begin Tuesday (November 11), opens November 13 and runs to November 29, Tuesday-?Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $20, previews and Sunday pwyc. 416-?538-?0988.


Think you know August Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie? You’re in for a reboot with KICK Theatre’s radical reinterpretation of the play.

When actor Christine Horne and director Melee Hutton discussed how to launch the company, Horne suggested the 1888 Miss Julie, in which the sexual hunger between the high-born title character and her father’s valet, Jean, leads to tragedy.

“That nasty play?” Hutton recalls saying. “And besides, its class structure doesn’t resonate in North America. How would we make it work?”

Then a light bulb went on: Canadian viewers would feel the script’s tension if Miss Julie were white and the play’s two servants were Aboriginal.

They contacted First Nations playwright Tara Beagan to talk about the idea and commissioned a new adaptation from her. It’s set in the B.C. interior in 1929, with Jonny (no longer Jean) a Shushwap and Christie Ann (originally Kristin) from the Thompson River Salish nation.

Importantly, in Beagan’s version, both native figures grew up in residential schools. Christie Ann becomes the rule-following cook, Jonny the more rebellious, ambitious manservant.

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“The adaptation makes Christie Ann a strong figure,” says Hutton, who’s shared the stage with Horne in productions of The Seagull and Bluebeard. “In Strindberg she’s a satellite to the others, little more than a stuffy, moralistic Christian by the final curtain.

“In Tara’s version, Christie Ann’s devout Catholicism has been imposed on her by the residential school system. Until the night of the play’s action, she’s taken that rigid system and lives tightly within it. But the events of the play wreck that structure, and she finds herself skidding around.”

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All three characters are forced to examine what the director sees as the central human question: who are we at our core? Miss Julie’s tragedy, she adds, is that she has no answer to that question.

“Strindberg wasn’t exactly a huge fan of women,” says Horne, smiling. “He wrote the play before Freudian analysis, but Julie is what Freud would call a hysteric. Her emotional leaps, and jumps in logic are justified by that fact.

“Tara has Julie consume a lot of alcohol, which unleashes all her desires, most of which are destructive.”

Yet the character’s also sympathetic, thanks to a backstory involving Julie’s parents that Beagan provides.

“Julie is sympathetic to the two servants she cares about them in a way that Strindberg’s character doesn’t,” says Horne, whose work includes Gorey Stories and Twelfth Night onstage and The Stone Angel on film. “Her mother was concerned about the Aboriginals on the family land, while her father isn’t.

“Julie’s a product of these two completely different people, sometimes expressing concern, at other times talking about ‘you people.'”

The native characters aren’t the only difference in this version of Miss Julie. Strindberg’s offstage sex and violence become part of the action. If the play reading I saw last winter was any indication, the steaminess of this production will shock some viewers.

“I think Strindberg would have put it all onstage if he hadn’t had the period’s restraints,” notes Hutton. “We’re so inundated with sex in the movies that you’d think it wouldn’t faze people, but we’re still surprised to see it onstage. I think that’s because it’s so immediate, intimate and raw, with no distance provided by camera angles and editing.

“Strindberg’s text has an element of pontificating, especially in the last scene,” continues Horne. “Tara’s cut through that and gone for the animalistic, primal nature of Julie and Jonny’s relationship.

“Yet the fucking is the least sexy part of the play. These two are really drawn to each other and have been for a long time. That’s what allows the act to happen.”

Surprisingly, the two artists conclude by talking about the play’s humour.

“No one wants to sit through 90 minutes of pain,” says Horne. “The emotional journey and touchy subject work better if there’s some lightness, too. That way the three characters become real people and the show isn’t an issues play.”

jonkap@nowtoronto.com

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