Mademoiselle Julie at the Barbican

Juliette Binoche In Mademoiselle Julie

Great expectations! No, not Dickens, but Juliette Binoche in London to star in a Strindberg. What a strange event!

Or maybe not that strange after all. The French superwoman has been involved with so many serious dramas, so many important female roles, that Strindberg, the misogynist, was only waiting to happen.

One thing is sure: only Binoche could make us like a typical Strindberg female like Miss Julie. This clearly anti-feminist author likes to portray his female characters somewhat one-dimensionally, as rather vexing, capricious, calculative child-women who have no mercy - and deserve none.

But in this very intelligent production by Frederic Fisbach, Julie becomes a real, multi-faceted woman, joyously flirtatious, almost innocently childlike, yet arrogantly conscious of her superiority and sensuously seductive at the same time. She slides onto the stage in her sexy golden dress, fully knowing her charms and deploying them, yet her almost-innocent, open smile shows a touching vulnerability, a child-like openness she will come to regret.

As always with Strindberg, the class system becomes a focus, and here it’s the servant Jean, who will cruelly state 'the way things are for upstairs and downstairs' soon enough. Sadly, Nicholas Bouchard, spiky, punky hair not withstanding, lacks the seductive energy needed to be convincing in this role. (Dirk Bogarde in The Servant is perhaps too much to aspire too.)

But only with acting of that mesmeric strength would Miss Julie’s fascination be really plausible. This is not just a silly, spoilt little girl, she is a confused, bright, romantic young woman with much insight into her own rather chaotic background. Her playful girlish, flirty behaviour is not malevolent here, though she has a sadistic capacity, as we soon learn from Jean. She lacks the emotional maturity to differentiate her feelings, and naively believes in seductive stories he tells her- and falls in love/lust. The coarse, sarcastic Jean makes his own class look very bad when he cruelly disabuses her of her notions of 'love'. The steadfastness of his girlfriend, Kristin (Benedicte Cerutti), with her quiet, almost stoic groundedness also reflects well this rather heartless way the poor are forced to live. There's no room for human kindness here; survival is their issue.

This confusing universe is presented to us very cleverly as our own - the bright white lighting pointing towards us when we come in. Laurent Berger, the set designer, had us stare like blinded rabbits into the spotlights when sitting down. We were being lit. The sets - almost Brechtian - were set back from us via glass rooms, actors dancing far away from us, actors speaking via microphones - odd at first, but keeping us reflecting on the connection between the lives on stage and our own. So we consider afresh questions about respect and lust and love, that they are an essential part of the real discourse about ourselves, and are abused by being used as ‘beaux discours’, seductive talk.

Then the lights went out and we sat in the dark. A courageous ending to an thought-provoking production.