You’d think that when you work on a classic play, you’d be working with a finished script. But such is not always the case – Brendan Cowell’s upcoming production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is still missing a few pages.
“We’re in week three of rehearsals, about a month from opening…and we have an Act 1 and we’re apparently getting an Act 2,” says Cowell. “Our writer is wandering through a cherry orchard in Melbourne somewhere so we’re trying to drag him out.”
Said writer is of course Simon Stone who is currently in Melbourne directing his latest adaptation, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Stone’s reworkings of classic texts have turned him into one of the most recognisable theatre forces in Australia so while for this show the original plot and structure might be Strindberg’s, most of the words in Cowell’s production will have come from Stone or the actors.
“Simon had a broad sheet draft and then we looked at the original and we all improvised,” says Cowell. Stone then works with a combination of his own ideas, the original script and the actors’ improvisations to create the adaptation. “Simon’s in no rush to finish the script… He kind of believes that actors are going to come up with a better line than the writer so he just waits and waits and waits until it comes out of their mouths. It really empowers the actor.”
Miss Julie is a story of power and class with a bit of lust and betrayal thrown into the mix. The titular Julie is the daughter of a wealthy nobleman, rendered here by Stone as a politician. Alongside his fiancé Christine, Jean (played by Cowell) works in the house of this rich man and it’s not too long before sparks begin to fly between Jean and Julie. The pair feel trapped in their positions and see in the other an opportunity to break free.
Unlike most of Stone’s adaptations, he’s not in the director’s chair this time ‘round. Miss Julie is headed up by Leticia Cáceres, whose production of The Dark Room (also starring Cowell) stunned Belvoir audiences in 2011 with its visceral power.
For Cowell, the opportunity to work with Cáceres again is a no-brainer. “If I’m going to stand up for 50 shows I want to make it worth my while and I know if I work with Leticia we’ll be saying something and I’ll be pushed as an actor and it’ll be worth turning up every night and it’ll be worth it for the audience as well.”
The team are really trying to explore the play’s thematic epicentre – the class barrier that divides protagonists Julie and Jean. It’s something that Cowell sees as very relevant to Australia now. “Just like we like to think that we’re deeply multicultural we also like to think we have no class struggle, but we do,” he says.
“There are people brought up who go to Africa for their holidays instead of Noosa, they speak three languages…they know how to eat a meal, what cutlery to use, which is very different to someone who’s going to go on a Contiki tour and I think those things do matter and there’s a lot of doors opened for privileged Australians.”
With Cáceres’ unique ability to mix the political with the primal, Cowell is pumped to be a part of the production. “She makes theatre about the forgotten people in society and she gives them a voice, not an earnest voice, but a big, loud, dirty-flawed voice.”
BY SIMON BINNS