Category Archives: BRANTLEY BEN

The Fine Mismating of a Him and Her

Johan Persson

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jude Law in the Donmar Warehouse production of “Hamlet,” directed by Michael Grandage.

The New York Times: September 9, 2009

YOU know the scenario: Boy meets girl. Boy hits girl. Girl hits boy. And the fight continues, amid thick hormonal steam, until one of them doesn’t get up.

It has been well over a century since August Strindberg forged the template for this savage alternative to the sentimental love story. When published in 1888, his fast, cruel and muscular little drama about a well-brought-up young woman known as Miss Julie — who, by the way, looks to be the muse of this fall’s theater season — was greeted with the kind of welcome reserved for a slop bowl on a doorstep.

“A heap of ordure,” wrote one journalist in Strindberg’s native Sweden of “Miss Julie,” which was understandably slow to find theatrical producers. Another reviewer described it as “a filthy bundle of rags which one hardly wishes to touch even with tongs.” Exciting, huh? When critics spewed like that, you knew that something serious was going on.

And so it has proved. Strindberg’s self-destructive heroine, who falls into a fatal liaison with her father’s footman, took a while to find her stage legs in this country. But once she did, there was no avoiding her influence. Hollywood might continue to prefer sunnier romantic formulas that ended with weddings instead of funerals. But theater artists, including the Olympian American dramatists Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, figured out that nothing strikes sparks like characters for whom making love and war is the same thing.

The next few months will find an assortment of marquee stars picking up their Strindbergian weapons and testing their muscles against the opposite sex. These are not featherweight matches. Miss Julie herself — or an identical British cousin of hers — returns to New York in the person of the eternal starlet Sienna Miller, bearing arms against Jonny Lee Miller as her erotic adversary, in Patrick Marber’s “After Miss Julie,” which reimagines Strindberg’s play in an English country house in 1945 and opens Oct. 22 at the American Airlines Theater. (The author of the bleak and biting “Closer,” the love-is-death psychodrama that was made into a film, Mr. Marber is naturally suited to such material.)

The Oscar-winning chameleon Cate Blanchett steps into the well-worn dressing gown of Blanche DuBois in the Sydney Theater Company’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams’s benchmark drama of beauty versus brutality, which runs Nov. 27 through Dec. 20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles come to blows in “Oleanna,” David Mamet’s 1992 play about sexual harassment, set on a college campus, directed by Doug Hughes, which starts previews this month at the Golden Theater. And to remind us that love as a death sport did exist before Strindberg, Jude Law will be on hand to push his girlfriend into madness and a watery grave in the title role of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of “Hamlet,” opening Oct. 6 at the Broadhurst Theater, directed by Michael Grandage.

The nail-biting question is whether these stars, all better known for film than stage work, will plumb the full complexity of characters who are more than their battle positions. (It seems fitting that “Streetcar” is being directed by Liv Ullmann, who became famous acting in film for one of the most nuanced anatomists of sexual conflict and its casualties, Ingmar Bergman.) In great drama, man against woman is never just a story of yin and yang, or of the clear-cut quest for dominance so memorably portrayed in James Thurber cartoons.

You want the actors to give good fight but also to reveal the restless psyches within that keep the balance of power unsettled. And it’s crucial that they make it clear that issues other than sexuality, riveting though that may be, are at stake. Of these the most obvious is — to use what has become a dirty word in recent years — class.

The romantic adversaries of “Miss Julie” glare at each other across a great social divide before crossing it with disastrous consequences. She’s an anemic relic of a crumbling Swedish aristocracy; he’s the full-blooded member of a rising working class. Mr. Marber didn’t have to look hard to find their parallels in 20th-century England. “After Miss Julie” takes place on the night of the epochal landslide victory by the Labour Party, which many upper-class Britons took as a personal death knell. (Such cultural transliterations in theater can feel painfully strained. But when I saw the Donmar Warehouse’s “After Miss Julie” in London in 2004, Strindberg’s poisoned story nestled most comfortably in its new context.)

As remnants of dying civilizations go, Blanche DuBois is even more threadbare than Miss Julie, though she holds on to enough life force to go a few rounds with the blue-collar lug Stanley Kowalski (Joel Edgerton in this version) before he breaks her spirit. In “Oleanna,” arguably the ultimate he-said, she-said drama, Mr. Mamet reverses the equation, pitting a defensive and undereducated graduate student against a pedantic professor. Like Blanche and Stanley, Carol (Ms. Stiles) and John (Mr. Pullman) speak different languages. The only way they’re going to connect — for better or worse — will have to be beyond words.

As pungent and even transcendent as the dialogue is in these plays, it’s that area beyond words where we need actors to take us: a place where sex and class blur at the edges, and identity is in crisis. It may be the fights, the fusillades of accusations and insults, that raise our adrenaline. But the vision of personalities shifting and warping under threat is finally what haunts us.

In his much-quoted preface to “Miss Julie,” Strindberg wrote, “My souls (or characters) are agglomerations of past and present cultures, scraps from books and newspapers, fragments of humanity, torn shreds of once-fine clothing that has become rags, in just the way that a human soul is patched together.”

Of course the plays in this mold must exude the heat of battle. That’s a large part of what makes them so compulsively watchable. But like all great war stories, when they show us the scars and stitches — of both the victors and the defeated — they move us to terror and pity.

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Hello, Sweet Prince (September 6, 2009)

Craig Schwartz

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” directed by Doug Hughes. Top left,