August 15 marked ten years since the death of iconic artist Ian Ali, a man who made a pioneering contribution to Trinidad and Tobago’s local landscape through art and television.
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Miss Julie a promising start for new production company
The thwarted ambitions and frustrated sexual scope of a woman’s desire were at the centre of Fab Productions’ presentation of Miss Julie: A Lust Story, staged at the Cipriani College’s CLR James Auditorium on December 21. Men have been writing about, and policing, female expressions of autonomy or their deficit since before 1888, when Swedish playwright August Strindberg composed the one act, naturalistic drama. Produced by Farrukh A Barlas, the play was adapted for the Trinidadian stage and directed by Errol Sitahal and Aryanna Mohamad. On Christmas Eve, while peasants drunkenly revel in the streets outside, Jean (Vedesh Nath), a driver of humble origins but with the aspirations of an arriviste, conducts a dangerous flirtation with Miss Julie (Rebecca Foster), the daughter of his master, and the lady of the grand house. While his fiancée, the house cook Christine (Tishanna Williams), sleeps, Jean and Miss Julie’s flirtations escalate past the point of no return, and they must decide whether to flee or confront the class cataclysm they have wrought into being.
Following Zola’s tenets of naturalist theatre, Miss Julie’s original script is steeped in affirmations of detailed realism, with a distinctly proletarian worldview. Naturalism was intended to render authentically and without the artifice of pretense the world as it is, stripped bare of the fanciful or mythic. On these working precepts, Sitahal and Mohamad’s adaptation is a dutiful but not cloying rendition of Strindberg’s archetype. Swapping a Swedish count’s estate for a postcolonial Trinidadian manor fallen on financial hard times and steeped in questionable repute, the reframed setting works well in conveying the players’ immediacy and the closeness of their concerns. Jean sits to eat pastelles at Christine’s kitchen table, and local beer is frequently pulled out of a cooler instead of imported brew. It is Barbados, not some tiny European outpost, that Jean and Julie invoke as a possible sanctuary.
Beneath the art and design direction of Farrukh Fayyaz, the single setting of the great house’s kitchen was presented in an intricacy of detail sure to delight Strindberg’s long-deceased naturalist’s eye. The warm, domestic comforts of a well-kept estate on Christmas Eve were suggested in minor, moving minutiae: the fold of a patterned kitchen towel; tinsel wrapped around a Yuletide tree; a red bow affixed to a very significant storeroom door. Fayyaz’s embellishments served to ironically underscore the vicious tensions seething between Julie and Jean, thrusting the bonhomie of seasonal cheer against the rancour of long-held grudges.
Foster and Nath faced a tremendous undertaking in delineating the misaligned couple’s overstuffed closet of snarling issues—indicative of the corrupt and censorious divisions that exist between the working poor and the idle rich. For the most part, their efforts shone with the elbow grease of persistent zeal, if not a sliver of alchemical wonder. That transformative laurel belonged to Tishanna Williams alone, who has enjoyed a year of on-stage strength, including her leading roles in Brendon O’Brien’s Body Equals Barrier and Proscenium Theatre’s The Wiz. Williams remained a pleasure to behold, even in the supplementary role of Christine. Her scenes, though brief, resonated with a carefully muted spiritual fervour, and a mindfulness of her class limitations, portrayed through an arsenal of visual registers, facial tics and vocal summons.
Nath’s Jean was appropriately rigid with repression and voluble with barely-concealed wrath, while Foster’s Julie commanded fleeting yet doughty moments of empathy, wherein the viewer ached for her caged freedoms. The limited range of motion she effectively captured was even less symbolically promising than that of her beloved bird, who meets a brutally sharp end. Despite this, neither principal player steered Sitahal and Mohamad’s adapted script into consistently resonant performances. The lacunae between their moments of evanescent credibility, and the surfeit of their awkwardly-steered ill rapport loomed too large, chopping up what might have been a satisfyingly vitriolic emotional carousel ride.
Rather like Jean’s dreams of upward mobility, the scope of Fab Productions’ premiere was marked by intemperate desire. Strindberg’s source material is rife with multiple layers of complication, and among these towering strata, its players and production team claimed several, but nowhere near all, possible victories. Miss Julie was a promising, but perhaps inevitably uneven beginning to the production house’s debut.
Miss Julie: A Lust Story
Written by August Strindberg; directed by Errol Sitahal and Aryanna Mohamad
Featuring Rebecca Foster, Vedesh Nath and Tishanna Williams. Produced by Fab Productions.
CLR James Auditorium, Cipriani College, Valsayn, December 18-21.