Review by Brooks Whitlock
British actress Vanessa Kirby is going to be nominated for an Oscar this year for her performance in Pieces of a Woman. With the acclaimed Best Actress award from last year’s Venice Film Festival, as well as recognition from the Golden Globes and various critics organizations, a nom is all but set in stone. But if you’ve seen the movie, or if you simply like watching one of Britain’s finest performers perform, I suggest a more intriguing encapsulation of Kirby’s talents: National Theatre Live’s taping of their 2018 stage production Julie. A reimagination of August Strindberg’s 1888 naturalism touchstone Miss Julie, it finds Kirby’s newly single Julie throwing a party in her bourgeois London house. She confides in her rich father’s valet Jean, played by Eric Kofi Abrefa, and her housekeeper/friend (and Jean’s girl) Kristina, played by Thalissa Teixeira, as she struggles to define her desires and path in life.
The success of Julie primarily relies on Vanessa Kirby’s impulsive, layered vulnerability. By far the play’s most captivating aspect, Kirby lays Julie’s tortured soul bare on the stage. The daughter of a well-off man, Julie comes to terms with the flashes of past desire and pain that render her immobile, that fold into her personhood and keep her from her future. Her fight for love mutates into a fight for survival and back again. In the hands of Vanessa Kirby, directed by the outstanding Carrie Cracknell, it’s an “actor’s dream” character that should go down as one of the best performances by a shining talent from the West End.
Julie also has a skilled supporting cast and set design. Abrefa imbues Jean with a determined gravitas that serves as an ample offset for Julie’s flightiness throughout, and Teixeira molds her Kristina into a beautifully understated sympathizer, internalizing every obstacle she faces to a fault. Polly Stenham’s script takes time to recontextualize Jean and Kristina—beyond Strindberg’s prescribed working-class status—as immigrants from Ghana and Brazil, respectively. Their active natures (best exemplified by Jean’s recurring dream in which he reaches out) contrast most visibly with the dynamic set, which includes a wide rooftop upstage and a downstage minimalist kitchen with blanched walls and cabinets almost reminiscent of a psych ward.
Julie is, on many accounts, the inverse of Kirby’s Pieces of a Woman character Martha. Whereas Martha eases up whenever she’s by herself, Julie desperately latches onto the bodies and words of anyone in close proximity. Martha itches to remove herself from rooms and situations she doesn’t like; Julie can’t stop having a dream in which she flails in one place, getting in her own way. Martha sees other people as intruding on her self-actualization; Julie displaces her arrested self-actualization development onto other people.
In Pieces of a Woman, Kirby registers a type of performance that Academy voters tend not to nominate in favor of more grand, showy entries. Fairly quickly, Martha understands that she must reclaim herself in order to unburden herself (her relationships with her domineering husband and over-caring mother, in particular, expedite this process), and watching Pieces of a Woman can feel at times like a waiting game for Martha to just rip the Band-Aid off. The characters have little in common, but it’s crystal clear that Julie is a far more active being, and Julie by default is the more engaging Kirby performance.
You can watch Julie on the National Theatre at Home website until January 2022. To stream the production, you can rent it individually for three days for $9.99, or you can subscribe to the entire National Theatre at Home catalog for $12.99 a month or $129.99 a year.
Guest author Brooks Whitlock is an actor, writer and avid reader from suburban Chicago. He is a recent graduate of Northwestern University and writes about all things movies and TV on netflixlife.com.
Related: You might also want to read our 2018 review of Victory Gardens’ Mies Julie, a different reimagining of the Strindberg original.