I’ve often considered theatre to be a looking glass for an audience to inspect and understand the fabrics that make up the world they inhabit outside of the auditorium. Playwrights in particular have a scientific function in examining the fragile threads that connect our species. Using dialogue, scenarios and forms to experiment, the playwright is like a scientist bringing together the right elements to produce a chemical reaction: controlled but often explosive in outcome. The director meanwhile cultivates this collision of science and greater questioning of human life into something tangible, almost malleable for the spectator, and places it within a context and framework for presenting. Katie Mitchell fits this analogy perfectly: she is a director who experiments with a creative team that brings colliding explosions of creativity with scientific precision to her theatre work. In her version of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, in a collaboration with Berlin-based Schaubühne, Fräulein Julie is a feat of technical engineering and experimentation in finding the intimate encounters between characters, both physically and mentally.
Fräulein Julie is, as Mitchell notes herself in the programme, a look at Strindberg’s characters “as if they had been grown in a Petri dish and were being looked at under a microscope”. Using notions of Strindberg’s own discontent with the naturalism of theatre (he apparently despised the heightened reality into which actors were put), Mitchell creates a performance that is viewed entirely through cameras and video projection, creating a live film. Whilst this may read as voyeuristic, the outcome is far from this: instead of pulling back the curtain on the action, the filming places the audience in cinema-like conditions, as we watch on a large screen suspended above the stage.
The focus of Strindberg’s play is shifted to be seen through the eyes of Kristin (Julie Böwe), as Jean (Tilman Strauß) and Julie (Luise Wolfram) give in to their love affair. Focusing on Kristin allows Mitchell to examine the psychological impact in minute details. The piece uses multiple high definition cameras that move inside Alex Eales‘s stage design: an enclosed room and multiple corridors, which the audience can only partially see from the auditorium. Working alongside long-term collaborator Leo Warner of Fifty Nine Productions as co-director, the live relay is intersected with shots from within the room itself, and close-ups manipulated outside the space using Cathlen Gawlich as a body double for Kristin. The outcome is a live film that captures an intimate portrayal of love, hope and loss, as if examining the characters within a laboratory under a microscope.
Whilst the audience is distanced from the cast and is free to observe how each scene is carefully constructed and manipulated by the camera operators, the filming creates an intimate encounter. Much of Strindberg’s text is removed, instead focusing on body language, occasional dialogue (in German with English subtitles), and small action. There are extended scenes focusing on objects, facial expressions, reflections in water or observations through the cracks of doors. The sound is entirely generated through Foley technique, with two sound technicians visible on stage, responding to screens showing the live relay. The outcome is a sharpness to the detail, with each action and expression caught with precision. It is truly mesmerising and immersive.
For all its stripping of text and action, Fräulein Julie still manages to convey the internal conflicts of Strindberg’s characters with precision. Mitchell heightens dramatic tension to the point of the whole play tipping over, but this is never an issue: the filming diffuses the work like a concentrated filter. Reflecting on the piece afterwards I can feel an almost chill of nervous excitement and satisfaction. Mitchell hasn’t delivered a theatre production, but an explosion of creative expression, breaking conventions and producing a piece of work that is – excuse the cliché – a thing of beauty. With technical precision, an adaptable cast who reveal the inner workings of their characters with acuteness, and joyfully creative direction, Fräulein Julie cracks open our ideas of theatre and character and, like a scientist at work with a microscope, we witness chemical explosions. Theatrical perfection.
Fräulein Julie is playing at the Barbican Centre until 4 May. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Centre’s website.