Writer: August Strindberg
Adapted by : Amy Ng
Director: Dadiow Lin
Miss Julie has always been a problematic play: its mixture of eroticism and class warfare produces plenty of queasy moments and it’s the sort of play that can be commended for presenting female empowerment or condemned for misogyny. Amy Ng’s adaptation for New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse adds the third element of the ticklish triumvirate: to gender and class it adds racial politics. It should be shocking – it isn’t and overall that’s a weakness, not a strength.
In Strindberg’s late 19th century original, Miss Julie is the daughter of a count and goes to the servants hall during the Midsummer celebrations to flirt with Jean, his father’s manservant, dance with him and who knows what else, despite the disapproving presence of Christine, the cook, possibly Jean’s fiancée. Julie and Jean plot escaping together, but it’s long been obvious it will end unhappily.
Ng moves the action to Hong Kong 1948 at the Chinese New Year. Julie is the daughter of the British Governor, John his chauffeur and Christine his cook. Strindberg’s narrative remains largely intact, cleverly adapted by Ng to include convincing references to a world in turmoil (the surrender to the Japanese at Singapore, the advance of the Communists in China), but above all introducing the concept of racial superiority, though in truth the debates between Julie and Jean on the subject of everything from the Opium Wars onwards are not compelling.
Strindberg’s original is widely regarded as an exemplar of naturalism (though one wonders what that says about the 19th century Swedish aristocracy) and Ng and director Dediow Lin generally follow that lead, but with an emphasis on symbolism and poetry that fits well with its Oriental setting. A spectacularly costumed Lion Dance represents the off-stage sex act, but the final melodrama is rather strained.
To her credit Sophie Robinson constantly irritates as Julie. Her immaturity makes credible her self-centred view of the world where it’s perfectly normal to flirt with a servant and to demand, in grande dame manner, that he obey orders and dance with you. Robinson’s petulance always convinces, but the character never quite has the weight for the play’s tragic possibilities.
Leo Wan skilfully brings out John’s ambition, lured by a Western life-style while still despising the British. He negotiates the power shift in the relationship with Julie convincingly, though the chemistry between the two characters is limited. Bruised by John’s neglect and the contempt of both the other characters, Jennifer Leong cuts a sympathetic figure as Christine.
Attractively set in a simply furnished rectangular space, with a screen cutting off the kitchen glowing with Chinese lanterns, this version of Miss Julie registers as an interesting interpretation rather than a searing experience.