Miss Julie, the psychological thriller, is a one hour fifteen-minute power struggle originally written by August Strindberg and adapted by Amy Ng. The new setting – Hong Kong during the 1940s. The titular Miss Julie (played by Sophie Robinson) is the daughter of a powerful British governor whose mansion house is also occupied by a personal chauffeur, John (played by Camille Mallet De Chauny) and his soon-to-be wife who is the cook, Christine (played by Emma Lau). When Julie pushes the limits of her influence on John, she begins a chain of events that send the characters down a road of mental torment for all involved. In terms of the narrative, it’s one of those stories where only a handful of key events actually happen. But what keeps us so engrossed with the characters is the strong conflicts they have with each other and also with parts of themselves. Amy Ng’s new adaptation still tackles class struggles such as those found in the original, but the new setting allows for the strong theme of racism and colonialism to rise up adding a whole new dimension to the friction between these characters.
It feels a detriment but I must admit – I have very little knowledge of Chinese culture. I didn’t know why there were ribbons tied around cabbages or why there were so many flowers in a kitchen, but what I can tell you is that it looked gorgeous. The first sense treated by the production was the smell of incense as you step into the theatre. Then the warm glow of hanging lanterns lit the space that was framed by sturdy looking bamboo scaffolding that had flowers hanging down. The centre portion of the space was lowered with the level floor interrupted by a warm smoking stove and a solid table that stored all sorts of ingredients and kitchen utensils. The space looked like somewhere where work was done but also had elements of a personal touch, such as a picture of Christine’s aunt with tribute candles beside and a small statue of Jesus on the cross. A detail which I particularly admired was Julie’s father’s boots that were placed in the corner. It was as if the man himself was standing there in the corner, disapprovingly observing all the goings on over the course of the performance. Although he never appears in the play physically, it was a wonderful device to remind us of the power he has over all the characters. Keep an eye out, there are more physical metaphors to be found in this production and they work spectacularly well.
A show with only three actors demands strong performances from those involved; there’s no crowd to hide behind. That being said, each actor was captivating enough to silence a full theatre in their own right. There were moments where you could hear a pin drop, moments where there was only one character on stage saying nothing at that time but had us all hanging on their silence. My only real complaint was that I got my fill of John and Julie, but was hungry for more time with Christine. She was a moral pillar in this story and had to be away from the stage so that the other two could spill their secrets, as the story demands. Luckily Christine does have moments to herself as she is the first and last character we see, opening the play with a routine of her making soup which had been beautifully choreographed to music making the mundane look musical. There was real care between all these people, but as time goes on the world outside the mansion poisons their nature. Conflict, the kind that makes great theatre, bubbles over and spills out to stain the once loving relationships these people had.
When the play was over the lights came up to reveal the actors bowing, and us the audience applauding. I breathed out. And it occurred to me – I had been holding my breath until the last moments. I sat back realising I had been leaning forward so much. There was no interval to this performance and I’m glad it didn’t have one. I was gripped and didn’t want to be let go, not that I had the chance.
Miss Julie will be playing at Chester Storyhouse until Friday 13th March.