‘What do you know about magnificence?’ asks Christine the cook of John the valet as a pan is slowly brought to simmer above a burning flame. Presented in a strong north-east Welsh accent, Kaite O’Reilly’s Missing Julie relocates Strindberg’s Miss Julie to a stately home in Wales in 1921. Christine and John are the walking wounded, seeped in postwar and post-pandemic grief. This is a world of chapel and working-class nonconformity, where aspiring to magnificence is met with caution.
Following Hedda Gabler at the Sherman in 2019, this is another classic of the European canon directed by Chelsea Walker and starring Heledd Gwynn in the titular role. Missing Julie is similarly staged with a sophisticated and exact vision, and Gwynn’s performance is gripping. Her Julie is an unruly mixture of dangerously appealing contradictions. We think we know how it ends, but throughout she flirts with the possibility that this time it might be different.
Tim Pritchett as John is her opposite. Measured and assured, despite apparent limitations he is unafraid of performing his intellectual and physical prowess. The old order is being swept away and magnificence is owed to him, pure. As Christine, Catrin Aaron carries the stoicism of her class with the weight of the cross worn around her neck. Her climactic outburst is a gut-punch, and the tragedy here feels like hers more than anybody else’s.
Against Georgia Lowe’s arrestingly sleek and spartan matt black set of Perspex, bells and smoke, lit by Elliot Griggs, all three performers remain on stage throughout. Taut and claustrophobic, beautifully acted to the unceasing hum of Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s sound design, social and sexual tensions simmer towards their inevitable conclusion.
O’Reilly’s text is a lucid and lyrical exploration of the mores of the time, filled with beautiful textual images. But despite being set a century ago, Missing Julie is an utterly contemporary tragedy. Even in moments of apparent catharsis – particularly at this version’s conclusion – the possibility of rescue is no less certain: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” warns John. The answer is always the same.