Strindberg's portrait of class and caste divide

CLASSIC REVIVAL

A hundred years after the death of August Strindberg, he still continues to fascinate and provoke audiences in theatres around the world.

SWEET And SLY : Vidushi Mehra as Miss Julie and Damandeep Sidhu as Jean in the play.

But with a master director like Sohaila Kapur there couldn’t have been a better combination for Delhiites to witness Strindberg’s most popular Miss Julie.

The Stein Auditorium at IHC was alive with expectation and anxious faces who chose the best seat available lest they miss out on capturing any emotional moment. The play was presented by ‘Katyani’ in association with The Swedish Embassy and Old World Culture.

The lights faded out and emcee said the magical words, “Ladies and gentlemen we present to you Miss Julie”. Just then the audience got transported from a 21st century Delhi to the 19th century Sweden. The play opened with the maid Kristin, humming while working in the kitchen.

Jean, her fiancé walks onto the stage - which is set like the kitchen of the manor. He drops the count's boots off to the side but remains within view of the audience; his clothing shows that he is a valet. The naturalistic style of Strindberg is visible in almost everything from these boots to the bell.

The audience is introduced to the Count’s daughter, Miss Julie through Jean who talks to Christine about Miss Julie's peculiar behaviour and considers her mad since she went to the barn dance, danced with the gamekeeper and tried to waltz with Jean, a mere servant of the count.

The play unfolds as a dangerous mating game that turns into a battle of the sexes! Revolving around two lead actors, Julie and Jean and their individual struggles, the play narrates struggles. While Julie struggles with her past where she has been brought up like a boy by her mother, Jean battles the lower class that he comes.

The sound of merriment by those partying is heard from another room as Julie and Jean drink in the kitchen. Not just this, every musical note in the background drives the attention of the audience to Swedish culture and is rudely transported away from tranquility in the scene where Jean brutally butchers Julie’s bird. The impact of this scene was such that few actually shut their eyes unable to witness the ‘bloody’ scene. The lighting of the play onstage matched the tension in the content. 

Both the actors playing protagonists, complemented each other with intense and in-depth portrayals of their characters. Vidushi Mehra, who has been seen in not only theatre but also films and commercials, commented on the character of Julie, whom she portrayed very movingly.

“Miss Julie is a very intense role because she is tethering on verge of sanity and madness. She is a very complex character. To my mind, she wants love as she has had a strange upbringing and has been deprived of love all through her life, which makes her very vulnerable.”

No matter how intense is the agony of Strindberg’s heroine, the audience fell in love with Jean - her man, brought to life by the amazing talent of Damandeep Sidhu, previously seen in as an anchor on television in DD’s Haath se Haath Mila. A theatre lover, Sunita was one of the new fans who said she “thoroughly enjoyed the play but Jean was the best among the lot. His acting was so intense and ofcourse it is the director who also get a lot of credit for this.”

When informed about this effusive reaction, holding a cigar in his hand, Damandeep sat down to state that, “Jean is an easier character to understand, between the two protagonists. He is black and white and clear about what he wants. He sees an opportunity and so seduces Julie but can’t give her the love she desires, so backs off when she asks him to run with her. ”

Humble in part and overtly sly, Jean plays the perfect foil to Julie’s vulnerability. Guided by his verbosity, Jean takes full advantage of the situation and walking out of it too - when it suits him. What attracted him to his character? “It was interesting to play Jean since one doesn’t get such long monologues nowadays.”

If that be true, how is Strindberg relevant in contemporary times? Director Sohaila addresses this, “The caste, class, sex and power struggles of today, all find their resonance in the 19th century Sweden. What else is Khap panchayat about? Don’t we all long for love?”

She is as astute director who provokes you to think on these lines. The play holds a special place in the veteran’s heart but ask her when did she get introduced to it? “I was part of Faisal Alkazi’s workshop where my friend performed Miss Julie and after the play we discussed about the character for hours and hours,” she shared.

Just as well, that the discussions turned out to be a performance we shall cherish for time to come.

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