REVIEW: Finding solution to “problem play” Miss Julie at York Theatre Royal…or not?

Leo Wan as ambitious John and Sophie Robinson as restless Julie in Amy Ng’s re-setting of Strindberg’s Miss Julie in British colonial post-war Hong Kong for New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse

Miss Julie, New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse, Chester, York Theatre Royal, The Love Season, 8pm tonight; 3pm, 8pm, tomorrow, then on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

NEW Earth Theatre director Dadiow Lin is “not a fan of the original version” of Miss Julie, Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s once-banned, naturalistic tragedy of gender and class warfare.

Damned for misogynism, it remains a “problem play”, and yet fresh adaptations of this revolutionary work, full of psychological manipulation, lust and lies, keep emerging, no problem.

In 1995, Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie re-located its psycho-sexual pas de deux to an English country house in July 1945, on the night of the Labour Party’s post-war landslide General Election triumph. In 2012, in South African director and playwright Jael Farber’s Afrikaans’ version, Mies Julie, it became an apartheid story in a remote, bleak farm in modern-day South Africa’s Karoo semi-desert.

A year later, for York company Hedgepig Theatre, Gemma Sharp moved the turbulent triangle of lust, power and betrayal from Midsummer Night’s perma-light Scandinavia to the bright lights, decadence and debauchery of the Jazz Age England.

Andy Curry’s John and Gemma Sharp’s Julie in York company Hedgepig Theatre’s 1920s’ Jazz Age version of Miss Julie in January 2013

The 1920s, Sharp reasoned, were a time when sex before marriage was still frowned on, the class structure was rigid, and there was inequality for women, a status being challenged by the rise of the Suffragettes, the quest for female empowerment and the wearing-away of high society’s certainties.

Now, the ever-restless Miss Julie is on the move again, to the Orient, to post-war 1940s’ Hong Kong, back in British colonial hands after the surrender to the Japanese in wartime.

In British-Hong Kong playwright Amy Ng’s poetic, potent hands, it becomes politically as well as sexually charged, the chemical compound newly in danger of exploding with the extra measure of racial tension.

What had changed since the British 1920s for women and servants? Not much. The class structure was still rigid; inequality was still prevalent; high society was still high and mighty, titled and ever entitled; women and servants alike were expected to know their place.

Playwright Amy Ng

This applied as much to the British abroad, maybe even more so, and yet even though Hong Kong had been handed back to the Brits for reasons of “racial superiority”, the tentacles of Chinese Communism were reaching out in the shadows.

The British Governor General’s chauffeur, John (Leo Wan), now sees the British in a new light, weakened in their control, and he despises them for it.

Ng has retained the essence of the Strindberg storyline and three-hander structure, changing its setting, bolstering its topicality for the new Hong Kong, in its 21st century Chinese straitjacket, turning up the slow-burning heat in the cauldron of the servants’ hall amid the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Into the quietude of the party preparations of cook Christine (Jennifer Leong) and her preening fiancé John gate-crashes the Governor’s unguarded yet repressed daughter, Julie (Sophie Robinson), nursing a damaged ankle (or so she says), having hit her party straps outside already, with the Governor elsewhere.

Sophie Robinson’s Julie: “Spoilt, immature, blinkered, grand but needy, solipsistic, false, annoying, capricious, complaining. The question is why?”

She brings in her caged canary (ah, symbolism, evoking Ibsen and Chekhov’s trapped lives); then notes the dead flowers in the decorations (ah, more symbolism) and proceeds to flirt, dance and plot brazenly with John, as a sexual game of chess is played under Christine’s scowling gaze from behind the bamboo canes of a kitchen lit with Chinese lanterns.

It takes three acts in 1879’s A Doll’s House for all hope of escape to be expunged; Strindberg’s candle burns out in one act, gone in 75 minutes. All that symbolism peaks with a Lion Dance, to signify their sexual fires, a conflagration that can lead only one way when the tide turns, as hierarchal contempt, rather than misogyny, plays its hand in the shift of power and female empowerment withers on a bitter vine.

In our era of Brexit and the open dislike of the UK (not only in that pointless Eurovision vote), Robinson’s Julie is the not-so-bright young Brit thing writ large in an earlier age but still familiar: spoilt, immature, blinkered, grand but needy, solipsistic, false, annoying, capricious, complaining. The question is why?

She is born to privilege, gifted with opportunities, but lacking judgement and parental guidance, she has no sense of purpose or direction; her world is precarious, doomed. Maybe that is the difference between entitlement and empowerment; here she lacks the tools within for the latter. Today, she would be on Made In Chelsea.

For all Robinson’s enticing performance, for all Ng’s soulful poetry and contemplative intelligence, this damaged-goods, volatile Julie is not the stuff of tragedy or shock. More a one-night stand with too much baggage.

The cat and mouse games of the Lion Dance in New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse’s Miss Julie at York Theatre Royal

Wan’s John encapsulates the new vision of Ng’s version. He walks with a swagger, emboldened and ambitious, his contempt on the rise, while still polishing the British Governor General’s shoes and wanting to use the British to facilitate his Western wishes, tantalised by the prospect of becoming a hotelier.

Neglectful of Christine, ultimately dismissive of Julie, his ambivalent actions are embedded both in an abiding sense of presumed male supremacy and now a need to challenge the sense of racial “inferiority” that eats away at his subservience.

Like her pragmatic, deceptively calculating character, Leong’s Christine is less demonstrative amid the melodrama, the crash and burn around her, in the Freudian battle of the sexes.

Who should be given the final moment in Lin’s beautifully composed production but Christine, preparing herself for the new day’s work; nothing to see here, carry on. Some lives will always occupy that lane, picking up the pieces, but they are not the lives of self-destructive destiny that make the story, that draw us to the theatre, whether in Strindberg or Ng’s account.

Remains of the day: Jennifer Leong’s house cook Christine at the close of Miss Julie

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Sex, power, money and race collide on a hot Hong Kong 1940s’ night in timely Miss Julie

“What starts as a game descends into a fight for survival as sex, power, money and race collide on a hot night” in Amy Ng’s adaptation of Miss Julie for New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse, Chester. Pictured here are Leo Wan’s John and Sophie Robinson Julie

NEW Earth Theatre’s director and cast are in the York Theatre Royal Studio, having arrived on Tuesday for rehearsals for their touring revival of Amy Ng’s timely and politically charged take on Miss Julie.

Come Tuesday, Sophie Robinson, Jennifer Leong and Leo Wan will switch to the main house for the opening night of Dadiow Lin’s production, first staged with co-producers Storyhouse in Chester last year.

Out goes August Strindberg’s original 1888 setting for his full-length once-act drama Froken Julie, once banned in his native Sweden (of all places!) for its strong language and sexual imagery and for being too radical in its account of a psycho-sexual pas de deux between a count’s unstable daughter, Julie, and his ambitious valet, John.

In comes British-Hong Kong playwright Amy Ng’s new setting of the Chinese New Year in 1940s’ Hong Kong, when Julie (Robinson), daughter of the island’s British governor, crashes the servants’ party downstairs. What starts as a game descends into a fight for survival as sex, power, money and race collide on a hot night in the Pearl River Delta.

“I’m not a fan of the original version,” says New Earth Theatre director Dadiow Lin

“I’m not a fan of the original version,” says Dadiow of a Strindberg play now viewed commonly as being misogynist. “The reason I’m loving doing this play is because of Amy’s adaptation. What we get from Strindberg, if there is any message, is that every drama comes down to people and relationships, and he does a great job of building up the pressure over the night, but there’s something in his original work that I don’t appreciate. Amy has given it more life, a more current feeling, that resonates with people.”

Amy Ng is far from the first writer to re-visit Miss Julie’s depiction of gender and class. In 1995, English playwright Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie relocated Strindberg’s naturalist tragedy to an English country house in July 1945, on the night of the Labour Party’s post-war landslide General Election triumph.

In 2012, in South African director and playwright Jael Farber’s Afrikaans’ version, Mies Julie, it became an apartheid story in a remote, bleak farm in modern-day South Africa’s Karoo semi-desert.

“Clearly there is something in the nub of the story that’s attractive and interesting to other playwrights, who undertake big re-workings of the text: Marber, Farber and now Amy’s new setting in Hong Kong,” says Leo Wan, the Sheffield actor who plays valet John.

Jennifer Leong’s Christine and Sophie Robinson’s Julie in Miss Julie at York Theatre Royal from June 22 to 26

“Strindberg’s politics remain of his era, but we can make them current to talk about them now,” says Dadiow.

“So there’s something there, but writers feel they want to re-write it,” rejoins Leo.

Amy’s Hong Kong location and its topicality in light of the protests against Beijing-imposed laws strike a chord with Dadiow. “It definitely resonates with me and my own background. I grew up in Taiwan when we were experiencing similar events, so a story like this, to me, while I never feel ‘I want to tell you things’, it feels dear to me as a story I’m familiar with.

“It’s very emotional. You can look at Romeo & Juliet and feel moved, but this feels very close to me, because of Taiwan being colonised by Japan until 1945. I feel very emotionally connected to the history and culture.”

Jennifer Leong, who plays the role of Christine newly revised by Ng, has spent time aplenty in Hong Kong. “My early school years were there and I still have family there,” she says.  “I lot of people watched it when we did a run of live-streams from Storyhouse earlier this year, especially with our production being set in Hong Kong.

“It’s a very powerful story about the lines that we draw socially,” says Jennifer Leong of Miss Julie

“They were very interested and said they really appreciated the specificity of the world that Amy has set the play in. We learn that the white, British people lived ‘on the peak’, exclusive to the British, and I have family with memories of that, so to hear about that context from them made it very powerful – and even if you didn’t know that context, it’s still a very powerful story about the lines that we draw socially. Now we add the race element to the class element of colonial times.”

Dadiow says: “Even though it’s set in the 1940s, you connect it with what’s happening in Hong Kong now, with the Chinese Communist take-over, where you’re seeing the rule of Communism really seeping in [with the national security law].”

Leo describes Strindberg’s Miss Julie as a chamber piece with a domestic setting, but one that expands in its impact through Ng’s 75-minute script. “It’s good to give a realistic context of what Hong Kong was like at that time, to show Britain when it still had an empire, with Hong Kong being the last great bastion of that empire,” he says.

“In this play, you see the repercussions of that, where if you colonise somewhere, and if you then stop that, you still have a moral responsibility to deal with what you have created, like the responsibility of now saying to Hong Kong citizens you can move to the UK [under a new visa scheme].

Sophie Robinson as Julie, the daughter of the island’s British governor, who crashes the servant’s party downstairs in Amy Ng’s 1940s’ Hong Kong take on Miss Julie

“Unfortunately, those who tend to be superpowers are singularly lacking in moral leadership…

…”But the one thing that British rule did well was to implement a legal system that Hong Kong is still proud of, and to an extent freedom of the press too,” interjects Jennifer.

Why book tickets for this Miss Julie, Dadiow? “Anyone who doesn’t like the original should see this version,” she urges. “This play is a psychological thriller with a real sense of danger in the room between mistress and servant, where you never know when they will cross the line, wondering what’s going on and will they cross it.”

That’s why the flyer still carries the content warning: Miss Julie contains some strong language, violence and scenes of a sexual nature.

Miss Julie, York Theatre Royal, June 22 to 26, 8pm and 3pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Copyright of The Press, York