A Southwark theatre is breathing new life into a classic this week.
August Strindberg’s 1888 play of power, desire and class Miss Julie has been reimagined in 1940s Hong Kong by playwright Amy Ng.
The original play follows the doomed story of Miss Julie, the daughter of a Swedish count, and the relationship between her and two servants, one of whom she has an affair with.
Ms Ng, whose production will be at the Southwark Playhouse next week, has transported the story to colonial Hong Kong.
Miss Julie has instead become the daughter of one of the British colonial elite, while the chauffeur John and the maid Christine are Chinese servants.
She said: “There’s a racial divide as well as gender politics and class.”
Although Ms Ng has written an entirely new script, the play follows the events in the original closely.
She said: “I mapped out every single event in the original play – each beat, every bit where the dynamic changes – and then I rewrote it.”
But some changes have been made in the adaptation.
The characters are less vicious than Strindberg’s and there is more of a sense that they have truer feelings for each other, but are thwarted by class and race.
Ms Ng said: “At that time those boundaries were so strong that there was no way they could be together. If it wasn’t for that maybe there would be a possibility that they could be together, so I wanted to write some tenderness as well as the power dynamics.
“For me it’s a tragic love story that’s distorted by all of these big social forces.”
Ms Ng, who is from Hong Kong, has a PhD in history and worked in academia before becoming a playwright.
She said: “It’s been very liberating to reach a broader audience than just writing academic history.”
Although Ms Ng says she doesn’t do “megaphone playwriting”, her work engages in topics such as British colonialism and the representation of East Asian people in theatre.
She said: “As a playwright I’m not out to convey a message so much as I’m describing the complexity of a situation indirectly.
“It’s very rare to see Chinese people – or servants – seen as complex people with virtues and flaws and agency. It’s rare enough that that alone is a political statement.”
Ms Ng also feels that there is a lack of awareness about Britain’s colonial history, especially in East and Southeast Asia.
She said: “I feel like there’s a lot of amnesia about the British Empire in this country.
“It’s important to raise awareness and keep that historical consciousness of that period of British history alive, because it’s so impossible to understand current racial relationships here between all the different minorities, and the relationship between Britain and the former colonial subjects, without it.”
Miss Julie is at the Southwark Playhouse until July 3. Tickets can be bought here: https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Pictured top: Sophie Robinson as Miss Julie and Jennifer Leong Christine (photo credit: Mark McNulty)
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