Amy Ng has adapted August Strindberg’s classic psychological thriller Miss Julie for Season 11, a season Storyhouse Originals in 2020. She is a London-based Hong Kong-Chinese playwright and historian. She has a research interest in multinational empires, imperial decline, and nationality conflict. She is fluent in English, German and Chinese and regularly translates contemporary Chinese plays into English.
You’ve made some interesting changes from Strindberg’s original play. Can you talk a little bit about what those changes are, and why you made them?
The misogyny in the original Strindberg play really disturbed me, and it was very interesting to write against that. I’ve really expanded the character and role of Christine, who is now the moral centre of the story. I’ve also made the outcome less inevitable — in my version, Miss Julie can choose a different path if she can break free of the assumptions and prejudices of her race and class, and Christine gives her the opportunity to do so.
Tell us more about your version of the character of Julie in your version?
The original Julie comes across as an aristocrat who toys with her servant. My Julie wants to be in love with John, and in another life, could have been together with him, and the tragedy is that those iron barriers of race, class and colonialism keep them apart. She’s still self-centred, narcissistic, and careless of other people’s feelings (particularly Christine’s), but I think I show enough of her vulnerability and trauma for the audience to empathise with her, even if they don’t like her much.
Why Hong Kong and why 1948?
The initial discussions to adapt Miss Julie took place in June 2019, when the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong first broke out, and Alex Clifton (artistic director, Storyhouse) suggested that Miss Julie could be a good vehicle for exploring the relationships between Hong Kong, China and Britain. The post-war years were watershed years in Hong Kong history. The British had lost Hong Kong to the Japanese in 21 days during WWII, and this destroyed British prestige and the myth of British invincibility in the eyes of their Hong Kong subjects. In 1947 the law preventing Chinese people from living in the Peak (which had hitherto been reserved for white families) was finally removed, which marks the beginning of the end of white legal supremacy in Hong Kong.
In 1948 China was in the midst of a civil war between the Communists and Kuomintang, refugees from mainland China were flooding Hong Kong, and people were terrified that the Communists would take over Hong Kong. The parallels to the current situation in Hong Kong are very striking, and setting Miss Julie in this period is a great way of thinking about Hong Kong identity and the British imperial past without being drowned by the volatility and passions of contemporary politics.
The play constantly shifts the power balance between Julie and John. Do you think audiences will side with a particular character, or do you want it to be more complicated?
I hope that the sympathies of the audience will shift between Julie and John.
Do you have a particular favourite line or exchange from Miss Julie?