Miss Julie / Black Comedy
Directed by Jamie Glover
The Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Wednesday 23rd July 2014 14.45
By August Strindberg
New version by Rebecca Lenkiewixz
Emma Handy as Kristin
Shaun Evans as Jean
Rosalie Craig as Miss Julie
Samuel Dutton as a farmer
A farce by Peter Shaffer
Paul Ready as Brindsley (the sculptor)
Robyn Addison as Carol Melkett
Marcia Warren as Miss Furnival (the neighbour)
Jonathan Coy as Colonel Melkett, Carol’s father
Shaun Evans as Harold Gorridge, the antique collector
Rosalie Craig as Clea, the ex-girlfriend
Mike Grady as Schuppanzig, the electrician
Samuel Dutton as Bamberger, th emillionaire art collector
Black Comedy is a one act play, part of a double bill with Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Chichester is celebrating Peter Shaffer with Amadeus in the Festival Theatre and Black Comedy in the smaller Minerva Theatre. I wish I lived nearer. They’re also doing rehearsed readings of his other plays on Sundays.
The plays were originally presented in tandem at the first performances of Black Comedy in 1965, at Chichester. Laurence Olivier was directing both The National Theatre and Chichester, and with Kenneth Tynan chose to do Miss Julie and they started looking for a one-act play to accompany it. Peter Shaffer pitched the basic concept of Black Comedy as a companion piece, and had it accepted before he even put pen to paper. So the pairing is a deliberate revival. Miss Julie was the original aim and The Black Comedy an inspired addition.
So we have a Swedish play from 1888 paired with an English play from 1965. It’s there to recreate the original Chichester opening, but you can’t help thinking a play in the same style from John Antrobus or Tom Stoppard might have been a better partner. My immediate thought was Antrobus’s Why Bournemouth, an excellent and near forgotten short play. The total set change in the interval at the Minerva was done extremely quickly and well.
I’ve longed to see Black Comedy for years. It was a play I’ve done extracts from. We used to do an improvisation class for ELT Advanced students through the 70s, always with two teachers. It was Colin Granger’s inspired idea to use it for ELT, but I’d already done it as an impro on “acting as if in the dark” in drama classes. Karen and I continued it for ELT students. We would explain the concept of Black Comedy. It starts, ostensibly in full light, but actually in a blacked out theatre. We hear the characters talking (Look at the pictures! Give me the orange one etc, so we know they can see). They put on a record it, in grinds to a halt, and the theatre floods with light. The actors say “A fuse has gone! Then everyone on stage acts as if it’s pitch dark. Add the confusing elements. They’ve borrowed antiques from a neighbour to impress their expected guest, a deaf millionaire art collector with a foreign accent. But there’s an electrician with a foreign accent who turns up in the dark to fix the fuse. We would improvise it, then get students to think of new characters, new confusions that could happen in the dark. It was a great way to while away ninety minutes. I had a group of high level translators from China circa 1974 and tried it with them. It failed miserably. ‘Do not worry, comrades. Please sit down everybody. The party will switch the lights on soon. We must sit here and wait.” And they did. End of impro. But otherwise, it usually worked a dream.
I never got to see Black Comedy actually performed until today.
Let’s be critical on the double bill. Miss Julie isn’t in the same class as a play. In 1888 it was ground-breaking revolutionary stuff, but today it’s polemic, didactic and tedious. Black Comedy is a masterpiece. When Olivier commissioned them, Britain was between the Lady Chatterley trial and Ken Russell’s Women in Love movie. Women lusting after the lower classes was the in thing. Strindberg got there first, D.H. Lawrence forty years later, but Miss Julie is a template for everything Lawrence ever did. D.H. Lawrence was really cutting edge in 1965. Adding plodding Northern accents for Jean and Kristen in this production only served to emphasize the Lawrence connection. You need RP pronunciation versus an accent of course, but I would have said “any regional accent except D.H. Lawrence.” But was the theme that dramatic in 1888? Not if you’re into traditional English folk ballads … try The Birth of Robin Hood, Her Servant Man or a dozen others of greater age.
Both plays were one hour twenty minutes. We’ve been to West End productions of single plays at this length, and they’re not called “One Act Plays” any longer. There’s just a sign in the lobby with “There will be no interval”. I don’t see they had any need to tie them together (except nostalgia for 1965). They don’t work together for me, and I would have preferred to see Black Comedy alone and go home. I would have been perfectly satisfied and would not have thought I had been overcharged. Just in terms of casting for a repertory production, it’s odd and inefficient: only three actors are in both plays (and one is minor). I do hope Rosalie Craig and Shaun Evans got paid double for their major roles in both.
The great strengths of Black Comedy as theatre only highlight the shortfalls of the ranting Miss Julie. It’s a dated play. Interclass sex is the stuff of Upstairs Downstairs then Downtown Abbey, so forty years away from surprising or shocking if it ever was. It may have rung bells in 1965 when the debutantes of the day were picking up a bit of rough from the ranks of rock bands and footballers, though that’s different from the servant’s hall. I suppose the connection between the plays is the Deb / Rich Girl with a “lower class” lover.
Having said that, we thought Rosalie Craig was a transfixing and electric Miss Julie. I remember working in a beach coffee stall as an 18 year old, on my own. Everyday, two ex-public school girls amused themselves by buying a coffee, leaning on the counter, staring long into my eyes and telling me how gorgeous I was, just like P.J. Proby. (Alright, don’t laugh!) I remember the heady allure of rich girl prick teasers. Rosalie Craig was absolutely perfect. Shaun Evans as Jean played Northern slightly-wooden “Trouble at Mill.” ( I was just Southern wooden). They lacked chemistry, though it was hard to see how anyone could fail to be attracted to Miss Julie.
In the end: Strindberg, Summer., Scandinavian, Swedish, Sex, Sexy, Sexist, Servants, Suicide. Sums it up. A dull play, very well directed with a beautiful set. The ending eschewed the ludicrous blood-spattering so popular now in the West End. Thanks. The Minerva is a fabulous theatre with a steep rake and great sight lines, but on this matinee it did enable me to see at least four people extravagantly sleep in the third of the theatre to one side of the thrust stage. It was a very hot day outside (29 degrees) and the audience elderly. Overall, as a play, two stars, but Rosalie Craig lifts it to three stars single-handedly.
L to R: Carol, Brindsley, Miss Furnival
The original needed additional rehearsal time in 1965, because it’s so hard to do. It is a theatrical tour de force, a triumph of physical acting and business. Timing has to be spot on for the entire play. A great farce. We have rarely laughed out loud so much.
As a farce, it has stereotypical characters. Brindsley is a sculptor. His Sloane Ranger girlfriend (or as they would have said in 1965, Deb for debutante) is Carol. Her dad is an irascible old Colonel. The neighbour with the antiques (which Brindsley and Carol have purloined to impress the expected art collector) is a gay antique dealer. The other neighbour is a teetotal elderly spinster. The electrician is a German pre-war refugee who likes art. Brindsley’s ex-girlfriend, Clea, is a mischievous girl who arrives, susses it and starts to control the situation. I wonder if Elvira, the ghost in Blithe Spirit, was in Shaffer’s mind when he wrote the part.
Brindsley, Clea, Harold Gorridge. They don’t know Clea is sitting between them
The acting as if it’s dark allows non-stop physical business, with the addition of a lighter, matches and a torch at various points, which means the lights go down to half-lit whenever a match is struck. Usually, Brindsley or Carol need darkness to cover their machinations, so blow out matches and the lighter. This requires (and gets) precision timing on lighting. I’m not going to describe the business, but it had us in fits and was executed beautifully, especially by Paul Ready, as Brindsley. It’s the sort of central role where you expect a famous actor in a way … there’s an added element from outside fame that a Brian Rix would have brought in 1965, or indeed Stephen Mangan today. But no one would have done it better than Paul Ready in his glasses and shock of unkempt hair.
I thought his costume was a few years too early for 1965, but then he is an impoverished character. Carol’s ultra-short mini-dress was pure 1965, which gave hilarity when she had to climb the stairs (to her) in the dark. I don’t know why an ungainly revelation of bottom and flash of panties is funny, but it is. Rosalie Craig’s Clea is a delightful stirrer (loved her 1965 B.O.A.C bag).
Marcia Warren as the teetotal spinster was lovely … there’s a lot of business involving the wrong drinks being poured in the dark, with the result that she gets pissed. Jonathan Coy’s Colonel huffs and puffs and he also does a spectacular bit of physical business (no spoilers). I thought they underplayed the gay antique dealer, Harold Gorridge. Every role is stereotypical, and I would have expected a more flamboyant rendition, although maybe that was considered non-PC nowadays. Though as military men, spinsters and upper class girls get lampooned, I would have expected (given the Northern accent … maybe he only does Northern accents) the full Russell Harty accent. Shaffer wrote it as funny, maybe this was just subtle, but there are all sorts of hints that might suggest Brindsley was ambidextrous. Certainly, Harold Gorridge had hoped so.
The millionaire is supposed to be deaf, so when the heavily-accented electrician arrives, they all start shouting at him. The ending when the real millionaire arrives is a short scene, with a fabulous “will he / won’t he” as he just misses the open hatch to the cellar.
A great play. A great farce. A fabulous production. But still an odd pairing.