Review: A dive into the consciousness of empire brings top drama to Coventry stage

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Miss Julie at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Friday, 9th July 2021, 9:30 am
Updated Friday, 9th July 2021, 9:32 am
The adaptation is set in Hong Kong in 1948
The adaptation is set in Hong Kong in 1948

In Amy Ng’s spare and beautiful adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 tale of doomed love between an aristocratic British woman and her Chinese servant, the politics of love is brought sharply to the fore. The setting is Hong Kong in 1948, an outpost of the British Empire that was overrun by the Japanese. It is the beginning of the end of empire, and the British have lost credibility among their Chinese vassals for losing control. Everyone went through great suffering at the time, and now the territory is coming under the shadow of China itself as the local population look towards their Communist brethren for an alternative.

All this is woven into a short three-hander that centres on the tense, erotically charged relationship between Miss Julie (Sophie Robinson) and her father, a taipan or British tycoon’s, chauffeur John (Leo Wan). The stabilising force in this doomed affair is Christine (Jennifer Leong), John’s fiancé and a cook in the household, a Chinese woman of Christian faith and common sense, but not enough of either to prevent her man and her mistress from self-destruction.

Miss Julie herself is a naïve, over-privileged, virginal heroine who has fallen for her brooding, tortured servant. Class and cultural differences form rifts like deep canyons between them, yet these are what also bind them. The complex, shifting dynamics between the two lovers are played with a burning intensity. Each is a victim of their cultural and personal histories, and is the case with Strindberg, neither can break free from them. This is no comedy, but a dive into the consciousness of Empire at a time when it is beginning to fall apart.

Jennifer Leong in Miss Julie

Perhaps the appetite for serious drama isn’t there at the moment, because the socially distanced theatre was by no means full. That’s a pity, because this is drama of a high order, richly patterned and with a fresh take on a classic play that throws light on a piece of history that is still working out today.

* Miss Julie runs until July 10. Visit www.belgrade.co.uk to book.