Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Fröken Julie - a lady or a miss?

Fröken Julie is the daughter of a count, and as such she is part of the aristocracy. I usually tell drama students that Diana Spencer was the daughter of an Earl and no one ever called her Miss Diana. It is true that today and ever since the end of the 19th century the title 'fröken' has been used for all unmarried women, but before then it was limited to girls of noble birth. The middle-class girls had to make do with 'mamsell' and the servant class with 'jungfru'. The first few translations of this play into English were keen to use Lady and Countess in the title. The point is, it makes total sense when it comes to the acting. Jean has to beat about the bush when he addresses her at the beginning and after their passionate encounter in his room he simply drops the title and calls her by her first name. That dramatic effect gets lost when she is simply Miss Julie throughout, but that is the way she is known these days and I don't think I shall be able to persuade any directors to call her by her proper name.
When it comes to that play it never ceases to amaze me how the scene with the peasants can be interpreted in so many different ways. I have just been watching Alf Sjöberg's film from 1951 again, with Anita Björk and Ulf Palme in the leading parts and the midsummer jollifications are recognizable and believable in their drunken, sensual fun. Strindberg leaves much to the imagination and it is therefore even more remarkable that English productions often depict a kind of orgy. It is eroticism turned pornography. I urge students to go back to the play and see if there is any justification for such an interpretation.
It took twenty years after he had written the play t before it was produced in Sweden. When George Bernard Shaw came to Stockholm in 1909 Strindberg called in his leading actors from the archipelago and asked them to give a private performance for Shaw. But he was clearly worried about the emotions it would give rise to. He and his first wife had put the play on for one night only in Copenhagen in 1889. Siri had played Julie and that was the last time she worked as an actress. It was also the last time they were living together. Their marriage was breaking up after that. The play evoked so many painful memories for Strindberg so he asked his actors in Stockholm to go lightly, very lightly when it came to the passionate scenes. There is no record of what Shaw thought of it. Little did they know, though, that it was going to be the most performed of all his plays and in the autumn of 2012 the French actress Juliette Binoche is playing the part at the Barbican in London. They are calling the play Mademoiselle Julie.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Strindberg's centenary

With Strindberg's centenary coming up in 2012 Sweden and U.S.A are preparing to celebrate in grand style. The Swedish theatres are pulling out all the plugs and producing a number of plays which have not seen the light of day for ages. How pleased August would have been if he knew.
In 1911 his Intimate Theatre had just closed after three years' of existence. He had fallen out of favour yet again and was busy fighting the state and the world in the press like a latter-day Don Quixote. His last play, The Great Highway (1909) had not been a success. The Nobel Prize had gone to Selma Lagerlöf in 1909 so he realised that he was never going receive that ultimate accolade.
However, the amazing demonstration of love and support that he enjoyed on his last birthday in January 1912 must have gone some way towards comforting him.
The young and the poor were on his side, as were the members of the Socialist party, and a huge crowd gathered outside the building where he lived, on his last birthday in January 1912.
The fascinating thing about Strindberg is that he never ceases to upset. There is nothing cosy about him. You read him and the blood pressure rises. There is so much energy in his writing, so much passion in what he writes that you can't help getting sucked in and forced to take a stand.
He leaves no one unmoved. His language gives off sparks and there is an unstoppable rhythm about his dramatic dialogue.