Swan Theatre, Stratford – until 25 March 2017
“Why do you silence me?”
A break from the old routine for the RSC here, with a play from the 13th century. Not only that, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Snow in Midsummer is an adaptation of Yuan dynasty drama The Injustice Done to Dou E by Guan Hanqing, marking a key milestone in the venerable institution’s avowed change of policy after the The Orphan of Zhao debacle in 2012. Transplanting the narrative into contemporary China, Cowhig and director Justin Audibert smash the ancient and the modern together to startling effect.
Dou Yi (Katie Leung) was a young widow executed for murder in the industrial town of New Harmony, proclaiming her innocence all the while and cursing the community in her final moments. The play starts properly three years later with her curse having come to pass, drought has devastated the area and local factories are on the brink of closure, Dou Yi’s spirit restlessly haunting them all, determinedly awaiting exoneration. A newly arrived businesswoman (Wendy Kweh) scents a takeover but as her young daughter’s dreams take a disturbing turn, she can’t help but get sucked into this world.
Snow in Midsummer may feel like a slow play to start but it is as much us as audiences who may be slow to become accustomed to the altogether different rhythm of the storytelling as it unfolds here, ghostly monologues lit vividly by Anna Watson, striking movement (from Lucy Cullingford), music by Ruth Chan blending folk instrumentation with fierce electronic sound. It sets the mood perfectly and Audibert’s production ensures a real fluidity that ensnares the audience through the atypical first half and then explodes in intensity post-interval.
Leung is ethereally effective throughout, especially as Dou Yi darkens in intention and Kweh’s Tianyun is superb, embodying the complex mix of professional and personal successes and failures that accompanies much of what we call ‘progress’ – her encounter with Dou Yi’s mother (Jacqueline Chan) is just scintillating. I also enjoyed Colin Ryan and Andrew Leung as a gay couple (obvs!) thoroughly entwined into the heartbeat of the story and Emily Dao as the young Fei-Fei is outstanding in a refreshingly maturely written child’s part.
Last and by no means least, it should be noted that this is the first all-East Asian cast to appear in Stratford-upon-Avon, two-thirds of whom are making their RSC debut and impressive as this is, one can only hope that it is truly is a beginning of a redefinition in British theatre’s thinking post-Zhao, post-Print Room, post-every time Hollywood gets near anything Asian. For though the Chinese Classics Projects is laudable in its continuing exploration of the Chinese canon, there’s Isabellas. Mercutios, Gertrudes and Lears (to say the least) for the taking here too and the time to be bolder in casting them and in supporting them is now.