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Dancing Dragons and a Bowl of Poison- Miss Julie at York Theatre Royal

What is the logical connection between a pregnant dog, the Chinese New Year, and a pair of boots in the corner? And why did the British need to stay far from the slums in 1940s Hong Kong? The adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, at the York Theatre Royal, answers all these questions at once.

1940, Hong Kong, the day of the Chinese New Year. John (Leo Wan) arrives home, to a property of a colonist Englishman, to find Christine, (Jennifer Leong ) doing the household tasks. They are making sure the estate is in good hands by the time the lady of the house- Miss Julie, (Sophie Robinson) comes back from her hedonist, not too ‘Lady-like’ outing.

The New Earth Theatre , and Storyhoure Production completely redesigned and updated August Strindberg’s piece. Dadiow Lin director and British-Hong Kong writer Amy Ng turned the Swedish naturalistic play into a fizzy, and captivating phenomenon. The original piece from 1888 took place on Midsommer night meanwhile the Miss Julie we saw last Tuesday -a day after Midsummer night kept new surprises.

Funnily enough, in this new version, both Julie and John wear face masks to protect the household from the bubonic plague that outbroke in the slums of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the audience could not have related more to the scene- we were all sitting there, sucking the freshly unwrapped ‘theatre-sweets’ under our masks.

The tensest scene was undeniably the dance of the two dragons, which represented the elongated climax moment in the sexually charged relationship between Miss Julie and John. This scene was even more suggestive and aggressive in the first version before Covid. But social distancing required a creative new way to portray the tension. It is now a beautiful choreography performed by the two actors wearing dragon costumes, leaving the audience to imagine the subtext.

The main elements of Strindberg’s play stayed untouched. Diana, Miss Julie’s capricious dog got pregnant- Christine’s special potion as a solution to this unfortunate pregnancy ended up in the wrong hand, leaving Miss Julie suffering death similarly to the impregnated animal.

Picture credit: © Mark McNulty, New Earth

After the play, the audience had the chance to stay for a short Q&A with the artists so the most enthusiastic could get a glimpse of what happened behind the scenes.

The biggest challenge for the artists apart from the pandemic (obviously) was the lack of audience. In March, they rehearsed the play in Chester while live-screening. This meant, they were isolated in an artificial show environment, where they could not ‘feed on the audience’s energy’.

Although the empty theatre felt cavernous, in the end, the live screening felt like a nice transition from staying home in lockdown to performing in front of hundreds of longing eyes.

As the actors all agreed, confidence had to be built up during the play. Getting back to the normal ‘theatre reality’ takes time.

While the actors were pleased to see faces in the audience, even covered with masks, we the spectators could not have felt more alive, back in the theatre again. Both actors and the public needs the symbiosis between the two sides.

Between 29 June-3 July New Earth Theatre is going to perform Miss Julie in Southwark Playhouse, London. Tickets are available here.

And 8-10 July, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Tickets can be purchased here.