Clash of the classes in this post-colonial reimagining of Strindberg’s classic.
Almost any and all relationships can be seen through the lens of power, be it between master and servant, or simply lovers. And it is managing that careful balance of power that determines the difference between equilibrium and a barrage of emotions, something that is thoroughly explored across the dangerous games played by the characters in Strindberg’s classic play Miss Julie.
Power play remains relevant regardless of era, and Strindberg’s Miss Julie continues to find relevance today, having further complicated the dangerous game with themes of classism, sex, and survival. Written by Amy Ng and directed by Ng Choon Ping, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Hong Kong Arts Festival’s (HKAF) new production of Miss Julie sees the play transposed from 19th century Sweden to Singapore in the late 1940s, fresh from the end of World War II. Miss Julie is no longer a Swedish aristocrat, but the daughter of an upper class British family, while her servants are Chinese Singaporeans, in a time disillusioned by the British army’s crippling defeat at the hands of the Japanese, and anti-colonial sentiment is at an all-time high.
The power dynamic is made clear from the very beginning of the play; even though it’s Chinese New Year, Christine (Sharon Mah) gets no rest, and still slaves away at making tonics and medicine, to the point she falls asleep while watching the pots. Not only is she making tonics for Miss Julie; she’s also crafting a potent brew that will supposedly help her dog have a miscarriage, for fear of the mongrels resulting from mating with the neighbour’s pedigree dog. The parallel between dogs of different breeds and humans of different classes does not go unnoticed by chauffeur John (Steve Chusak), who comments how even dogs cannot escape the inherent prejudice and classism imposed by humanity.
In crafting the set, production designer Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng and associate set designer Petrina Dawn Tan have attempted to create the interior of a house that reflects the family’s wealth and status. Yet curiously, a grand giant marble staircase at centrestage is flanked by a tiny kitchen and living room, and throws the architecture of the house into question – why would such a large house contain such tiny rooms, and so close to the main stairway? In addition, above the stairs lies only darkness, and clashes against the otherwise mostly realistic depiction before us; perhaps the darkness represents how anything beyond the confines of the stage is dark and dangerous, unknown pleasures and new rules lying just out of sight.
One thing that can be said however, is the attention to detail in the little things. Associate costume designer Tan Jia Hui has given the work attire feel period-appropriate, complete with a chauffeur’s cap for John and a lengthy fishtail braid for Christine, who dons a black two-piece samfu. Meanwhile, a photo of a deceased family member hangs on the wall, complete with a cross and rosary beads, in contrast to the Chinese altar beneath it, suggesting a clash of Eastern and Western ideals, and the play’s attempt to bring out those tensions.
More importantly, the change in celebration to Chinese New Year, beyond the Singaporean setting, seems symbolically relevant, as they leave the pain of the past year behind, hope for better lives to come, and supposedly welcome a new era. And to celebrate, the servants pull out all the stops to find happiness in whatever way they can, from an elaborate 18-layer peng cai, to brand new clothes, and even a marriage proposal. All this is only possible while the master of the house isn’t home, and John even becomes so bold as to steal wine from the cellar, and toast to the new year.
The momentary joy doesn’t last long however, as Miss Julie (Heidi Parsons) crashes the party, and dramatically descends the stairway in an ostentatious Marie Antoinette-style dress, sporting a high wig with a birdcage in hand. The costume is appropriate – one is reminded of the worst excesses of the French monarchy, and foreshadows how similar to the guillotining of the royals, the British colonials too would eventually have their power removed. This is the set-up for the clash of classes that erupts over the course of the play, as the three characters navigate their tenuous relationships, each with their own agenda. John dreams of escaping servitude and opening a hotel, but cannot due to how little he is paid. Julie is fresh out of a relationship and harbours a deep-seated sexual desire for John, against her better judgment. And Christine wants nothing to do with any of it, wanting simply to fade into the background and remain a good servant, regardless of how she’s treated by Julie.
Previous productions of Miss Julie often put Julie front and centre as a sympathetic, tragic protagonist, where she finds herself a caged bird, unhappy with her current position and desperate to free herself from the shackles of class. This is something still present in this staging, where Heidi Parsons’ portrayal is filled with naivete and spoilt petulance, caught in a state of childish arrested development. One pities her for being a victim of circumstances, but cannot wholly take her seriously as a character, who possesses the same child-like lilt in speaking of her upbringing and mother’s death. What’s worse, her attempt to wrest control over her life translates into treating her servants like playthings, commanding Christine to check on the dog to give Julie alone time with John, or her obliviousness to her own privilege, asking Christine to cut up her brand new Antoinette-style dress for a quilt.
As a play set in Singapore, presented in former British colonies Singapore and Hong Kong, the clear difference between character’s race is brought to the fore, and from a post-colonial viewpoint, we cannot help but root for John throughout the play as he attempts to exact revenge on his colonial masters. This is perhaps the most thrilling segment of Miss Julie, as the two are caught up in their attempts to wrest power from each other, carefully treading their mutual sexual tension. Referring again to Julie’s immature behaviour, the dominatrix-like eroticism is lost in the way she gets John to kiss her boot, feeling like a child playacting as an adult. On the other hand, there are moments that Steve Chusak seems to be on the verge of committing an act of violence onstage with the way he pulsates and seethes with concealed rage, and one is left both awed and afraid of the animal strength within him.
Things come to a head when a storm of firecrackers outside the house prompts Julie to invite John to her room for ‘safety’, and as the lights flash, a deluge of red paper rains down like blood upon the stage, as if to represent the terrible nature of John having sex with Julie – an act of violence that damages his own relationship with Christine, while also turning the tables on Julie at last. Sex becomes a trump card for John and Julie’s downfall, as she becomes reduced to a hapless victim of blackmail, chained to John through her rash decision. There is a quiet, almost deathly silence that fills the stage at this point, as if both John and Julie are attempting to come to terms with how much their lives are about to change.
As the play comes to the denouement and it seems that life is about to change forever, an ominous ring sounds from the telephone, and it’s as if the events of the last hour mean nothing, with John realising the futility of his plan, and losing the nerve to follow through with it. In her new Chinese New Year dress, Christine chastises John, expresses her disappointment and breaks off the engagement, and goes to church – it’s a new year and a new dress, but the same old life, perhaps even worse than before. John, all dressed up to drive the master around again, leaves the completely devastated Julie alone to stew in her regret, her bags packed and still as child-like as ever, complete with a silly red beret on her head, as if about to go on holiday, and her fate remains a mystery as the play closes. There are times a caged bird can only truly be free once dead.
Sitting at a 70 minute runtime, there has been a significant amount of text Miss Julie has cut from its original (which usually clocks in at about 90 minutes), and at times feels like it was rushed through. The cast do seem a little shaky at first before finding their feet, but once they do, director Ng allows for an uneasy tension to lingers in the air between all three actors onstage, leaving one in anticipation of when it all blows up. The best parts of Miss Julie lie not in the big reveals, but the subtlety in the cast’s actions and interactions that director Ng brings out, be it the specificity of how Christine cleans the cups in a traditional circular motion, or the way John gazes at Julie, midway between desire and contempt.
Miss Julie represents a remarkable three-country collaboration between Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK, practically unheard of in these pandemic times. To see that effort result in a thrilling reimagination of a timeless classic is nothing short of an achievement, and one hopes that it is a production that grows legs and gets to travel to Hong Kong for the 2022 HKAF, proof of how live theatre can continue well into the future, while remaining as hard-hitting and relevant as ever to the way we live.
Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre
Miss Julie plays from 25th January 2022 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available here
Miss Julie is also slated to play as part of the 2022 Hong Kong Arts Festival from 17th to 20th March 2022. Tickets and more information available here