Two-thirds of a great production of “Miss Julie” are on view in Michael Boyd’s new West End revival of Strindberg’s demanding play, and their names are Maxine Peake and an utterly galvanic Christopher Eccleston. Aisling O’Sullivan, the evening’s Julie, is the inescapable weak point of a largely riveting occasion that upends the play in all sorts of intriguing ways, starting with its design. But if there’s a hole at the center of Strindberg’s alternately comic and cruel 1888 play, the unfortunate miscasting finds abundant recompense elsewhere. Keep your eyes on Eccleston and you could just as well be peering straight into Strindberg’s savage, wounded psyche, with Peake on hand in an impressive supporting turn to ensure that this potentially icy exercise in role reversals possesses something approaching a heart.
“Miss Julie” is among the more frequently performed of late 19th-century classics, and one can understand why, as it offers its leading players the sorts of volatile acting challenges that — in the right hands — can tear up the stage. (By comparison, Mike Figgis’ little-seen film version of the play last year — with Peter Mullan and Saffron Burrows — demonstrated the difficulties of translating Strindberg’s highly particular hothouse tothe screen.)
An extended case of attraction-repulsion and back again between the nobleman’s daughter of the title and that same man’s seething servant, Jean (played here by Eccleston), the play is both a tale of attempted class revolt and of sexual impulses that exist well beyond status. By the end, of course, order (or, more accurately, class hegemony) is restored at the cost of one life and of another — in this staging, anyway — that gets chillingly reimagined as a living death.
Such action as the play has is fueled by erotic fever, and it is this element that often gets waylaid in “Miss Julie’s” sex wars. There’s something absolutely right, then, about Boyd’s opening moments, which find Jean’s intended Kristin (played by Peake) gently soaking her feet while the two speak acidly of their superiors, beginning with Miss Julie. On the rebound from a failed engagement, the madame of the house soon appears — descending, in Tom Piper’s impressive design, into the servants’ kitchen down a fantastically long spiral staircase that could have been lifted directly from Sean Mathias’ London and Broadway “Les Parents Terribles” (aka “Indiscretions”). This set gives new meaning to the phrase the lower depths, which itself goes some way toward explaining the sparks struck by the haughty Miss Julie and the no less contemptuous Jean.
Removed by what would seem to be several miles from light and air, Miss Julie and Jean carry out a mating dance at once voracious and fearful, interrupted only by the reemergence of Kristin in full God-fearing mode. Comes the dawn and, with it, an end to an erotic rondelay that makes wretches of all three players.
Whereas Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — Boyd’s laudable Royal Shakespeare Co. production of which reaches New York in May — builds to a definable concord and harmony, this play’s nightmarish Midsummer Eve (the time at which it is tellingly set) is perched on the knife edge of madness.
That precipice is brilliantly walked by Eccleston, the able film and TV actor (“Jude,” “Elizabeth” etc.) who here reveals himself as a real presence on stage. More than any Jean I have seen, Eccleston’s come-hither sneer acts as both tease and torment. (When he flashes his teeth, the actor suggests a more virile version of a George Grosz caricature.) Leaping across the table at his targeted Julie, Eccleston cuts a mesmerically unbuttoned presence, which makes it that much eerier when his master returns to the house wanting Jean’s service and the actor suddenly freezes up.
One’s thoughts might not drift back to “The Blue Room,” and how well Eccleston might have inhabited that play’s multiple male roles, if O’Sullivan didn’t bring to mind a tepid version of Nicole Kidman as she might look with Ann Reinking’s eyes. This actress has done terrific work in the subsidized theater — notably as Cripple Billy’s brutal paramour in “The Cripple of Inishmaan” — so it’s hard to explain why Miss Julie’s growing panic and self-delusion here come off merely as eccentricity. But it’s hard to sustain a tug-of-war when only one partner is doing the tugging, even if there’s little new on the London stage at the moment to match for excitement the sight of Eccleston just waiting to snap.