dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Sex and politics make for tragic mix in new adaptation
August Strindberg said of his play Miss Julie 'The plot is full of possibilities' and this new production currently playing at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry takes up some of those possibilities and runs with them. Adapted by Amy Ng, the plot moves to post World War Two Hong Kong, a country riven with social, political and racial tension and change.
In this setting, Julie is now the daughter of the British Governor and her affair with her father's chauffeur John therefore crosses not just class divisions but also national and racial barriers. In doing so Ng and director Dadiow Lin make the play immediately more relevant to modern audiences especially at a time when issues around racism and diversity are to the fore.
At times the language is uncomfortable as we hear Julie's stereotyping of the Chinese population of Hong Kong and John's references to both the British living there and the Japanese who took the island during the Second World War. But that is Ng's point – to remind us that these divisions and these blinkered views we can have of 'the other' still exist.
Ng has kept the central heart of the play, the relationship between Julie and John and its fall-out, but she has made a lot of adaptations – which sometimes remove the masterful subtlety of Strindberg's original. While the political issues are important, they are repeated again and again – Ng could trust her audience to have got the point rather than hammering home these conflicts.
This production by Storyhouse is also much more overtly sexual which takes away some of the simmering undercurrent which makes the later part of Strindberg's play so shocking. The adaptation also leaves little to the imagination at the end, removing any ambiguity on Julie's fate.
The performances are all strong. Sophie Robinson is a butterfly-like Miss Julie, flitting around the room, changeable every moment and so fragile she can break with a touch. Suffering from the rupture of an engagement, the death of her mother, the after-effects of internment in a Japanese camp and a difficult relationship with her father, Julie turns to the servants for companionship but in doing so crosses lines which can only lead to disaster. Sophie has a great skill in holding a pause so the audience is literally holding its breath waiting for whichever catastrophe she is about to embark on next.
Leo Wan is a chameleon as John so that even the audience finds him hard to read. He's driven and ambitious but also talks of love - but what are his real feelings for Julie? As the play progresses, we are unsure whether he feels affection, hatred, envy or scorn for the woman whose life he ruins. Jennifer Leong's Christine is given more prominence in this production. Working in the family kitchen and John's fiancée, she has known Julie since Julie was an infant and tries to protect her but to no avail.
The action all takes place in the kitchen but Adam Wiltshire's design ensures a touch of the Orient with bamboo slats, lanterns in the background and a Lion Dance. At the Coventry's B2 studio, the production makes great use of the space with the audience so close we also become part of the suffocating atmosphere of the kitchen. Miss Julie is never a comfortable watch and this production, presented by New Earth Theatre, is a refreshing new take on the classic. It plays Coventry Belgrade until July 10, see /www.belgrade.co.uk/events/miss-julie/ for details.