In May of 1987 Patrick Malahide portrayed Jean in a “Theatre Night” adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie“. “Miss Julie” is an incredibly tumultuous and intense drama that takes place over the course of one fateful Midsummer’s Eve night.
It Starts Out Fun Enough
Jean is a valet with dreams of aspiration who serves an unseen Swedish Count. It is the night of the Midsummer’s Eve celebrations. Jean and the cook Christine (Sarah Porter) are downstairs gossiping about the Count’s daughter Miss Julie and her awful behavior. She has been making a spectacle of herself dancing with the servants. They also natter about her broken engagement.
Jean claims he saw Miss Julie putting her fiance through his paces forcing him to jump
like a horse until eventually the poor fellow grabbed her riding crop breaking both it and the engagement. This gives us a good hint at just how capricious and ridiculous the young Miss Julie is.
Christine gives Jean his dinner, but he rejects the common beer she serves. He has a fine wine stashed away which he stole from his master the Count. It is obvious that Jean fancies himself an aristocratic gentleman. It is also obvious that he and Christine are enjoying a lusty affair. They are seen to be “engaged” but they aren’t at all likely going to be married. They really do have a lot of chemistry and are pretty steamy together though.
Enter Miss Julie
Then Miss Julie (Janet McTeer) enters. She is capricious, bossy and, frankly, horrible. The way she treats Jean is nothing short of sexual harassment. She swats Jean with her handkerchief, but he impresses her by recognizing the scent of violets. He cuts a fine figure and stands out against the other servants.
She finds him compelling and is physically attracted to him, but she also enjoys pushing him around like a plaything as she forces him to dance with her again despite his advice that it will make the other servants talk. Miss Julie doesn’t care, and he goes outside with her.
Earlier Jean had promised Christine a dance but now must go back on his word. Miss Julie seems to get a wicked dig out of denying Christine her dance. They leave Christine to tidy up. The jilted cook gets a bit of petty revenge by taking away Jean’s meager dinner and wasting his fine pilfered wine.
When they return, Christine is fast asleep. Miss Julie tries to wake her, angering Jean who points out she has been working all day and is tired. Miss Julie makes Jean change out of his servant’s uniform into a much more dashing black jacket. She also continues with the sexual harassment by making him kiss her shoe, rubs a speck of dust out of his eye and generally treats him like an inferior. He follows her orders but makes it clear he is only obeying her with great reluctance as a servant must.
The Tables Turn
But, it isn’t long before the tables are turned. The other servants and workers are getting restless outside, giddy from their Midsummer’s Eve celebrations. Jean tells Miss Julie that they are making fun of her for going after a servant by singing lewd songs about them.
He convinces Miss Julie to hide in his bedroom. While they are in his room, the servants burst in the kitchen, mocking both Miss Julie and Jean and leaving crude signs indicating awareness of a sexual relationship between mistress and servant.
At that point, Jean completely has the upper hand. It is very uncomfortable watching him push Miss Julie around alternating between contempt and kindness. She now sees herself as fallen after going into his bedroom and giving in to him, and he cruelly agrees with that assessment.
Obviously if she becomes pregnant as a result of that night her life will be awful. Plus, she can’t handle the thought of the servants snickering at her behind her back. She begs him for advice.
He bullies her harshly, but then suddenly becomes loving and flirtatious, suggesting they run away together. Smoking a cigar as though he himself were a Count, he imagines them running a popular upscale hotel in Switzerland where they would serve only the rich elite…being sure to “salt” the bills. There is one hitch, Miss Julie has no money nor no way of raising capital. Well, that puts an end to all that. Jean’s fantastic plan hinged on her having money. Once he learns she has none, she is of no use to him.
The back and forth power struggle of their relationship is reflected in the nighttime dreams they have had. She confesses that she has had dreams of falling a great distance to the earth. He has had the opposite dream of wishing to climb, but he has difficulty grabbing the first branch. The meaning is clear, he was born to ascend while poor Miss Julie is doomed to descend.
In a somewhat disturbing point, he tells her he has loved her since they were children. He was very poor, but once sneaked across to see the Count’s “Turkish pavilion” (outhouse) where he caught sight of Miss Julie. He fell in love with her and was determined to kill himself since he was so far beneath her station. Obviously he failed. However later the story becomes much more twisted, as he viciously points out the more degrading aspect of spying on her around an outhouse.
The topsy-turvy nature of their relationship is intense. It plays out over one night, so the speed with which they go from hot to cold or from angry to pitiful is extraordinary. What is even more extraordinary is how smoothly both Patrick Malahide and Janet McTeer transition between their different emotions. It is absolutely seamless which makes it all the more disturbing. You are given very clues as to how one will react from second to the next.
Battle of the Sexes
Another aspect at play is a very bizarre “battle of the sexes.” Miss Julie’s mother was a commoner who believed in rights for women. She insisted the farm workers swap gendered work roles which led the farm into ruin. She raised Miss Julie as though she were a boy while simultaneously teaching her to hate men.
One day the mother burned the farm down and got her lover (who was looking after her money) to loan the Count the rebuilding capital interest free. This was the mother’s peculiar way of getting revenge on the Count, making a cuckold of him while also forcing him to rely on his wife’s money. So, not the healthiest of upbringings for Miss Julie. Jean was not especially sympathetic to her broken childhood as he sees himself as being born into the wrong class.
Eventually, they reach a tentative agreement to run away together, but that gets completely botched when he finds Miss Julie standing pathetically holding a birdcage. She cannot leave without her little bird and would rather the poor thing die than let it live without her. Jean solves that issue by cold-bloodily killing the little bird. It is a horrible scene, and I rather hated both characters by that point.
The delay gives Christine enough time to rejoin the action, she is ready for church. Jean had promised her he would go with her, but that is another promise he breaks. Miss Julie suddenly devises a stupid plan where all three of them would run off and set up a hotel with Christine as head cook. Naturally, Christine thinks this is an idiotic fantasy and says she’ll tell the stables not let them take any horses out. Christine seems to be the only one with a lick of sense in this production.
The Count Returns
Soon after Christine leaves, the bell rings indicating the Count has returned. It is very creepy seeing Jean quickly turn into a smiling, efficient servant as he communicates with the Count through a pipe. Again, the change is seamless, his ingratiating smile seeming wildly inappropriate. They cannot run off together after all.
It is especially interesting and symbolic the way Jean quickly takes off his gorgeous black coat and replaces it once again with his more jolly but less dignified servant’s vest. The transformation from would-be aristocrat to valet is swift.
Miss Julie remains utterly devastated, fallen and broken. She essentially forces herself into an hypnotic state, begging Jean to command her to commit the one final act of suicide. I am fairly certain it is a final act too. He commands her to do so, “it is horrible, but it is the only way to end it….now go!”
She wanders off with his straight razor certainly with the intention of ending her life. Jean begins tidying the room and preparing the Count’s coffee as though nothing eventful had ever happened.
I’m not sure how I feel about this production. It is certainly captivating and the time flew as I was watching it. But, I can’t say I actually enjoyed it, certainly not in a fun sort of way at any rate. It is too disturbing and cruel to actually enjoy like that.
It begins charmingly enough. Jean and Christine are initially very cute together. Certainly they have their own battle of the sexes going on, but it is more a squabbling husband/wife comedic affair. Their gossiping about Miss Julie’s scandalous behavior is also cute in an upstairs/downstairs sort of way. Also, they have a sizzling chemistry that feels very real, even though we know that Jean doesn’t especially care for her, and she is far too practical to believe he ever could. Their limited relationship of convenience is vastly healthier than Jean’s and Miss Julie’s though.
As soon as their mistress flounces in, all that changes. It quickly becomes very dark with some unbelievably vicious behavior from both Miss Julie and Jean. Only Christine seems to maintain any dignity, even though she is portrayed as a woman of loose morals who claims piety. I’ve read in some places that she is supposed to be a hypocrite because of that, but I don’t see her that way. I think she believes deeply in the class divide and is truly dismayed to see Miss Julie sink by sleeping with a servant. Christine is a woman who spent her life looking up to the aristocracy only to have that belief shattered. As for her relationship with Jean, again, I see her as practical as opposed to being slatternly.
Patrick Malahide is, of course, wonderful. His swaying emotions are seamless. And he is so intelligent, dashing and handsome, you can see why both Christine and Miss Julie fall for him. Although we never see the Count (just his intimidating boots and fearsome bell), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Jean isn’t the more Count-like of the two in physical appearance.
So, while it isn’t an easy watch, it is a compelling one with a masterful performance from a very intense Mr. Malahide. I recommend at least giving it a go, especially if you like dynamic, emotional dramas.