Miss Julie trio

Jennifer Leong's Christine with Sophie Robinson as Miss Julie with Leo Wan as the chameleonic John in the background. Pictures: Mark McNulty

Miss Julie

Coventry Belgrade


This Belgrade production was not just five stars. It was more than that

Why? The notion of transferring August Strindberg’s naturalistic 1888 classic Miss Julie (Fröken Julie) from Sweden to a (pre-handover) Chinese Hong-Kong setting is not such a bad one – plenty of great stageworks have survived this kind of variant, not least Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (forget Verona, this is New York). As long as it’s not part of some politically correct ‘anything but white’ wheeze (a fair number are floating around the theatre currently), why not?

So here we were in Amy Ng’s adroit adaptation with three – just three – actors, two (the servants) Chinese, the third (the mistress: turn of the century Shanghai, and even much later - Empire of the Sun - had plenty of those) – white: issues of class rather than caste, of presumption and imposition and domination (although ineffective), of spiritual and emotional alliance, of giving and supporting – all aspects of what Strindberg intended – fed easily into this superbly thought-out, incisive staging by Dadiow Lin.

Doubly strong, because she is assisted by the amazingly competent, detailed and perceptive Movement  Director Yukiko Masui (terms like ‘Intimacy and Fight’ are coming into fashion, but in her Trinity Laban biog. she describes herself as Dancer and Choreographer. She is doubtless a master/mistress of all of these). The Lights (fine, focused and unobtrusive), Design (immensely modest, with a few lanterns, lightweight seating, yet one beautiful, dark oak-looking (unless of some indeterminate oriental wood) long table that could easily have seated Banquo and Macbeth’s banquet, and Sound (pretty ghastly, needless pounding at the opening, I thought, but thereafter really appealing and beneficial) all served the right cause (Adam Wiltshire, Chris Davey, Max Perryment).


Jennifer Leong as the cook Christine

Wiltshire’s own company is, I think, scene2.co.uk. And this as a whole was (as often) a team-up: the Belgrade works to great effect with the ensemble Tamasha, already celebrated for launching many young performers’ careers, with generating new or re-energising forgotten repertoire. Tamasha’s original plan, and I imagine that subsists, is to offer opportunities (young) South East Asian – not only Chinese: presumably, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian – acting, and indeed directing, writing, designing openings that in themselves would help contribute to, and vitalise, not just British but perhaps World theatre.

Ami Ng – and on the evidence here, her gifts of characterisation and compaction can probably compare, dare one suggest, with her Norwegian and Swedish, predecessors, has worked with the Belgrade before: only recently (2019), with an original stagework, Under the Umbrella’, which (directed by the Theatre’s co-Artistic Director Justine Themen) explored the hopes and frustrations, entwinements and complications, of a young Asian student involved in her studies at University (of which there are two) in Coventry. Yellow Earth (now New Earth) Company, another part of these team-ups, is based in London’s once dangerous riverside Deptford, at its Albany Theatre (coincidence: Coventry too has an Albany Theatre).

Whether there’s a load of difference between a rich estate in 19th century Scandinavia, or Russia, or Spain, and a substantial 1940 end-of-era (and before Pearl Harbour) ambassador’s compound in any outlying British colony, I doubt.

If the Chinese element was supposed somehow to import really new and additional factors, tensions or political implications, it to quite some degree failed: but it didn’t matter. The words spoke quite effortlessly for themselves. There is enough social and psychological meat in any of the Strindberg legacy for it not to need any additions.

That (the end 19th century) was in itself an era, the period of Freudisn breakthrough, heralding staggering transitions in theatre, including the emergence, lurching into and generation of experimental Expressionism: Ibsen foremost on personal, psychological crises; Wedekind on sexual matters; Georg Kaiser lambasting every kind of authority; Chekhov (and Gogol) parodying the anomalies or outdatedness of Russian society; Max Reinhardt transforming the Berlin stage.

john and Julie

Leo Wan as the family chauffeur John and Sophie Robinson as tycoon's privileged daughter Miss Julie

So, this version, this – to a degree - novel concept could quite easily stand with the best of them. Give or take cuts. To slot a Scandinavian masterpiece in to 75 minutes must, of necessity, be endangered by the threat of simplification, of a failure to convey the full thinking behind it; in some respects, to make a masterpiece founder.

One never felt that with Lin’s (and Masui’s) staging for a second. The two Chinese servants (Jennifer Leong, Leo Wan) established such a loyal, tangible, moral, generous, heading for engagement relationship from the start that one could have enjoyed this staging without Miss Julie, with her hang-ups and frustrations and capacity for making a nuisance of herself (Sophie Robinson – terrific; one had just to watch the changing detail of her smile, of her face and chin, of her swinging from one angle to another like an artist’s model endlessly tweaked by a photographer).  She doesn’t come in for quite a time: by then we already had two superlative performers. And now, lo and behold, a third. 

One of the reasons the production worked stupendously - apart from little touches like the glaring scarlet, exquisitely decorated shawl or kimono in which Leong (Christine in the original, where he is ‘Jean’, here perhaps John) feels able, near the end, to wrap herself in: a symbolic moment, surely, of emancipation and release – is because the movement was so very special. Handling just two, or even three, actors on stage without much more to support you is not exactly abnormal in plays: Arthur Miller is full of such moments, and so arguably is Shakespeare, or his operatic equivalents.

But not with the actors having scarcely a break in 90 minutes. Here the moving, sometimes silky or sinuous, tentative, shy, hesitant or determined, or outrageously flirtatious, was handled with such skill – whether by Lin or Masui or a combination of both (they seemed to work beautifully in tandem) – that it was possible the very key to success. Whatever these actors were asked to do, had posed to them, though clearly not imposed upon them, they had the gifts, and the insight, the perceptiveness and presence of mind, to provide.

So, who could be surprised if Miss Julie earned them five stars? Or six, or seven. This was one of the best, most intimate and insightful pieces of stagecraft I have watched, on or off screen, all year. A masterclass, in fact. And you could see from the socially distanced faces in the Belgrade’s B2, from the spellbound intensity the audience still showed at the end, that the Strindberg element had had its effect. You were supposed to be mesmerised. We were. 

Roderic Dunnett


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