Miss Julie is standing on top of the kitchen table. Played by Sophie Robinson, she is recalling a dream in which, confined in a Japanese internment camp, she looked out at Stanley Bay below. The only way was down.
Standing in her shadow at floor level is her servant John, his dark uniform in heavy contrast to her pale cotton blouse and skirt. Played by Leo Wan, he is also remembering a dream, but his took him upwards to the top of a bamboo tree. He may be Julie’s social inferior, but his ambitions run high.
Their direction of travel – she spiralling tragically downwards, he striving desperately upwards – sum up August Strindberg’s 1888 play. Where would the power lie, asks the Swedish playwright, if a wealthy woman chose to seduce an employee? What conflict would arise between her sense of entitlement and his alpha-male assertiveness? The play gives privilege and servitude an erotic charge.
Playwright Amy Ng takes the idea further by relocating the play to the Hong Kong of 1948, where Julie’s class privilege is amplified by her colonial advantage. Like Yael Farber who added the legacy of South African apartheid to her celebrated Mies Julie Ng spikes her version with the politics of empire.
A sexual relationship between Julie and John would violate social norms of not only class but also race. The history of imperial exploitation adds an extra charge, while the to-and-fro struggle between Julie and John finds a parallel in the postwar vulnerability of the British in Hong Kong.
Unlike Jennifer Leong’s stoical servant Christine, who dutifully observes the Chinese new year back to back with Ash Wednesday, Julie and John are conflicted by the opposing cultural demands.
In Dadiow Lin’s production, streamed live by Chester’s Storyhouse, their lust and aggression is embodied in the lion dance they perform in front of the lanterns and bamboo of Adam Wiltshire’s sepia set. The scene hints at primal energies that the production tends to underplay. Robinson and Wan wrestle for status, but yield power too readily. Fighting shy of emotional extremes, they build little sense of danger. It makes for a production that’s lower on tragedy than it is on political insight.