Mademoiselle Julie – Barbican Theatre

My friend R. recently pointed out that all my reviews seem to be very enthusiastic and rarely negatively critical. Well, I guess it is a good thing that the show I saw last week-end left me practically unmoved, despite the months of anticipation and the star element of the cast.

Frédéric Fisbach first staged Mademoiselle Julie (a French translation of August Strindberg’s play) in Avignon in 2011, during a festival which I am planning on attending next year. After stopping by Paris, it is now finishing its tour at London’s Barbican Theatre.

Last time I visited this venue was in February when I had the pleasure to discover Cate Blanchett’s immense talent in Groß und Klein. The blonde actress was then running and dancing across the very large stage, trying to find acceptance in her family, old friends and neighbours, and only able to confide in the audience.

The Barbican theatre has a vast stage. The fact that the audience is layered and organised like, may I say it, a parliament, makes it all the more important for the stage members to reach out to the large room. Back in February, I felt that friendly outreach. Last Saturday? Not so much…

We discover Julie’s three characters in a kitchen and living room which look like they are out of a catalogue. They are standing in between two sets of large glass windows, separating them on one side from a white sterile garden crowded with a few tree stumps and  raving party dancers, and on the other side from us. Their dialogue is understandable with the help of microphones. All this makes them look like they are in an aquarium, to quote The Independent or Le Monde.

Is the exciting thing about seeing actors on stage not the fact that they are so close to us, that you can feel their smile, see the emotion in their eyes, even from the last row? Would a glass window not completely break this dynamic? As one of my acting tutors explained recently, the glass is a “fourth wall” – its purpose is to plainly distinguish the story from the rest of the world. Thankfully, as the play progresses, the windows are removed. However, the distance does not disappear.

Julie (Juliette Binoche) is the daughter of a rich count who hates her own existence and thinks running away to Switzerland with her servant Jean (Nicolas Bouchaud) will save her. Their affair emerges practically under the nose of the cook Christine (Bénédicte Cerutti), who Jean is engaged to, and who is the only one who seems to eventually find peace (by leaving the asphyxiant stage). Unfortunately, despite the lovers’ closeness, their unhappiness is not of the same nature which leads to their trip being impossible and her killing herself.

My companion on Saturday thought that the actors were perhaps too old to play Julie and Jean. I would say it does not really matter who plays the main part, even a man could do it with the right energy, as long as there is some consistency. My only frustration was that Bouchaud did not seem like a servant to me, physically. He simply looked too noble. True, he says that he learned beautiful words from reading, traveling and listening to members of higher classes, but I would like to see a more innocent Jean, who becomes powerless in front of Julie, rather than so patronising and cruel – someone who is putting on a face, but still has goodness on the inside.

Binoche is a beautiful actress, who definitely draws you towards the screen. If I may be so bold, after seeing her in this production, I believe I need more proof that she is as hypnotising on stage. I have no doubt about her talent and uniqueness, but believe this play’s staging completely blocked her aura. I hope she has rediscovered a taste for the boards and that she will show herself on stage more often from now on – perhaps in a smaller space and without the fourth wall.

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