Tuesday 22nd June 2021 at York Theatre Royal.
August Strindberg’s original took on the politics of gender and class; Amy Ng’s new adaptation, set in 1940’s Hong Kong, adds colonialism and deep-rooted war scars into the mix. As the daughter of the British Governor, Miss Julie displays the worst flaws associated with a spoiled and privileged upbringing: astonishing self-absorption, a dangerous lack of empathy and an almost pathological desperation for attention at all costs. When she crosses the boundary into the servants’ territory and targets the spoken-for John for her attention fix, she finds herself well and truly out of her depth.
Sophie Robinson plays the fickle Julie with a calculated restlessness, ensuring we all get a chance to recoil from her before we begin to see any layers. Here we have the Miss Julie we recognise, wielding the power of her sex in ways even she can’t fully comprehend until it’s too late, but also a Miss Julie reflective of debates going on now: the racist white woman blind to her own privilege and wrapped up in her false sense of legacy; a woman who denigrates a culture she doesn’t understand and yet fails to see how utterly lost she is within her own.
As the object of Julie’s attention-seeking, Leo Wan impresses with John’s sharpish 180 pivot away from the cautious servant we initially meet – his is a character not quite sure of his footing, but certain of his need to assert himself in some way. Jennifer Leong completes the trio as the sympathetic Christine; engaged to John, but bound to Julie by a sense of duty, having had a role in raising her. Leong gives the character an unwavering good heart and ensures that Christine’s fate is seen for all its tragic poignancy.
There’s no getting away from the static nature of Strindberg’s original, and in fact, much of the power of Miss Julie lies in its sense of claustrophobia. That said, while Dadiow Lin’s direction doesn’t entirely escape the trap of Miss Julie’s stillness, the action does generally tick along nicely and the inclusion of some expressionistic staging serves to inject some energy and visual variety when it’s needed.
Above all, Ng’s adaptation powerfully captures the complexity of those we would recognise as villains – and their motives. Those elements were always there, but in introducing the elements of race and colonial legacies in such a bright spotlight, this Miss Julie carries a different kind of relevant weight. It seems that Strindberg’s play not only remains an intriguing study of conflicted characters travelling over fractious ground, but also a play ripe for fresh adaptation.
New Earth Theatre’s Miss Julie plays York Theatre Royal until June 26th 2021 and you can find tickets here. The tour also includes London (Southwark Playhouse, 29 June – 3 July) and Coventry (Belgrade Theatre, 8 – 10 July).
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