Swedish playwright August Strindberg may not be alive today, but if he were, he might well be interested to see how his magnum opus, Miss Julie, has evolved and received adaptations of all kinds over the decades, as different companies produce new versions with each passing year, all of them still laser-focused on the key themes of classism and power.
In Singapore, the Singapore Repertory Theatre and Hong Kong Arts Festival have collaborated to reimagine the play in a brand new setting – post-World War II Singapore, where Julie is the daughter of a British family, lording over local servants. Class is now seen through a post-colonial lens, and the power play results in a clash between ideals, as Julie and her servants seek to understand what the new, post-war normal means for their positions.
Written by Amy Ng, directed by Ng Choon Ping, and starring an international cast comprising Heidi Parsons (as Julie), Steve Chusak (as her chauffeur John) and Sharon Mah (as her servant Christine), it is nothing short of a miracle that such an ambitious, multi-country show has been produced in this COVID-19 era. We spoke to cast members Heidi, Steve and Sharon, about how they’ve been preparing for the show, and what they hope to bring to the stage. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: How did you get on board this project, and why did you decide to be a part of this production?
Sharon: I first connected with SRT through their 2019 Open Call and then they got in touch with me late last year to audition for this. I wanted to be involved primarily because of the opportunity to work with and learn from this extremely talented group of creatives. But this being ‘Miss Julie’, I also valued the chance to explore and challenge how the women could be portrayed in a way that speaks truthfully in our current times.
Heidi: I heard about this production through my agent and really enjoyed the audition process with our director Ping so I was really excited to work with him when I got the part. I graduated from Drama School 6 months before COVID hit so I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to be on stage due to the pandemic so I was so excited to be able to perform in a theatre again!
Steve: I attended multiple auditions in London with actors both in person and over zoom. When I was offered the part I was delighted to be given the chance to portray such an interesting character and as I had never been to Singapore before I decided to jump on a plane and fly over for rehearsals!
Bakchormeeboy: How familiar are you with the original Miss Julie script, and how did you feel when you read Amy Ng’s version, especially towards the character you would be playing? Were there any preconceived notions you had of the character that changed?
Heidi: I had seen another adaptation in London at the National so had a very clear idea of the characters and the message of the play. Julie is always portrayed as a very privileged and frankly spoiled child but she is a complex and flawed character who I believe is a product of her environment and experiences, huge levels of privilege combined with absent repressed parental figures. I empathise with Julie, she has her own traumas and hasn’t got the skills to deal with them so deflects them onto others. Amy’s version balances issues of race, age, sex and power and left me wondering who or what is right.
Steve: I wasn’t actually familiar with the original text but I read Amy’s version and couldn’t put it down! I could see John’s journey through the play when I first read it and it hasn’t changed a great deal although John starts off on a slightly lighter note than I first envisioned.
Sharon: Fairly familiar with the original and so curious to explore Amy’s take on the characters… It was interesting for me to see Miss Julie’s emotional volatility coming from a justifiable place and Christine having more nuances. There’s a lot more warmth in the relationships between John and Christine as well as Miss Julie and Christine, which then makes the consequences of the power play between John and Miss Julie even more painful. In some of my initial explorations of Christine, given her choice to be with John, of mixed race, I did wonder to what extent she could have been a ’sarong party girl’ of her time.
But eventually, more layers to her emerged and that bias (“West is best”) became just one facet of her. And her love for John came from shared backstory of them being orphans. I also considered Christine’s association with the ma-jie’s who broke the traditional mould by carving an independent livelihood away from home and determining their own destiny. How would this co-exist with her comfortably adhering to master-servant social structures that she operated in? Where and what made her feel empowered or not? In some ways, Christine had a sense of agency because these ma-jie’s paved the alternative way for her (in contrast to Miss Julie who was still constrained by social structures). This made her an interesting counterpoint to Miss Julie and even John. Unlike John, she didn’t chafe as much about the class/race hierarchy making her ‘invisible’ to the upper class. What I’ve come to admire about Christine is that she didn’t let invisibility or anything else make her a victim and instead worked with whatever cards life dealt her to move forward.
Bakchormeeboy: Working together as an international cast and creative team, on a script that has been set in a specific historical time and place, what were some of the cultural clashes or differences in working style that emerged that you had to deal with over the course of rehearsals?
Sharon: I think most of us come from fairly cosmopolitan backgrounds and entered into this aware of the need to give space for differences. Because it was the first time for many of us working together, personally I took on a very loose-handed approach to the process, initially spending more time observing how others operated and getting clarity on what it is that we wanted to say with this version. I so appreciated being given a place at the table to wrestle through ambiguities together and make sense of both moments and the big picture. We did have to juggle a lot… What was the original’s intention? How was Amy’s take shifting that? How do we honour these and come up with a cohesive, authentic narrative for all the characters. It did take a lot of effort to stay open and ready for changes and evolutions, but it was necessary to ensure we gave it our best.
Heidi: For me it was a learning process, I knew very little about Singapore and its history and also the current social climate. The last few years have been a huge shake up globally for many reasons. As a British person, one of the issues that came to prominence in the UK was institutional racism. There is quite rightly a lot of guilt around imperialism which is brought to light in Amy’s script. So it brought up a lot of discussion which was aided by our great local actor Sharon and also our director team who could really illuminate the issues we were trying to explore in the play.
Steve: I couldn’t have asked for a nicer cast and crew to work with! Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming not to mention very professional.
Bakchormeeboy: Steve and Heidi, the UK’s theatre scene has been hit hard by the pandemic – as actors, how do you grapple with such a massive environmental change like that, and how have both you and your peers adapted to the damage COVID has wreaked in the UK?
Heidi: It’s been really tough. The market is so saturated with actors even pre COVID so it’s really been hard with such a huge reduction in productions to get jobs or even auditions! I think actors always have to be flexible and adaptable and this has just shown it more than ever. To survive in this industry you have to be able to find other work in between jobs and then make time for auditions and self tapes, it’s never easy but you make it work!
Steve: At the start of the COVID restrictions it wasn’t clear what the plan for live performers was but in true British style everyone rallied together and got through it by performing online or in open air theatres etc.
Bakchormeeboy: Sharon, you’re one of the newer faces on the local theatre scene, but we’ve already seen you around, with numerous credits under your wing. How does it feel to be working on the first “blockbuster” theatre show of 2022, and what does this spell for your career ahead?
Sharon: I am incredibly thrilled and beyond grateful to SRT for giving me this opportunity. I’ve learned so much from this and appreciate the visibility that this production has given me. I really look forward to gaining more experience and getting better as an actor with every new door that opens. As a ‘double-lifer’, it’s exciting to see the ‘actor’ part of my consultant/actor career portfolio getting bigger!
Bakchormeeboy: What do you hope audiences will take away from watching this production of Miss Julie?
Sharon: I hope audiences take away uncomfortable questions about themselves to confront. To ask themselves, as I have, “To what extent has power (in whatever form: race, class, gender, etc) corrupted my ability to see, listen and relate to another as a human being?”
Heidi: I want them to question whether the situation we are born into determines our lives and do the means justify the end.
Steve: As the play unfolds and the characters motivations are made clear it becomes apparent that you can make a case for each person being a victim in their own way. I don’t want to spoil the ending of course but I think audiences will be left with plenty to talk about and might find themselves surprised with whose side they land on!
Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre
Miss Julie plays from 25th January to 20th February 2022 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available here