I catch up with BAFTA Breakthrough and star of the Harry Potter franchise Katie Leung, who plays the lead role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s exciting new production Snow in Midsummer, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and directed by Justin Audibert.
Snow in Midsummer is a haunting story of social injustice, originally from 13th century Yuan dynasty China. It has been translated into a literal translation by Gigi Chang and re-imagined into a contemporary play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. This production is the first fruit of the RSC’s ongoing Chinese Classics Translations Project, a cultural exchange bringing Chinese classics to a modern Western audience.
What has prompted your move from screen to stage productions? Do you have a preference between the two?
It hasn’t been a conscious decision to move from screen to stage but rather coincidence that I was offered parts in two very brilliant stage productions that came one after the other. I feel I learn more about the craft when working on stage as naturally the rehearsal periods are longer and so there is a chance for your character to develop and evolve during this process and even more so once the show opens. Screen requires a subtlety that comes very naturally to me. I enjoy both mediums immensely.
Do you think that your role in Snow in Midsummer could bring new audiences to the RSC?
I hope Snow in Midsummer brings both old and new audiences to the RSC since it is essential to learn about different cultures in order to open our minds/hearts. I don’t necessarily feel my responsibility lies any more in getting young people to experience theatre than creating something that is accessible to people of all ages. As an ethnic minority, however, I do hope to encourage more people of East Asian descent who have an interest or passion for the arts to pursue their creative desires.
How do you feel appearing in the RSC’s first Chinese translation, combining your heritage and your professional life?
I am very much looking forward to experiencing life in Stratford upon Avon even though my time there will be relatively short and of course I hope it does open up opportunities to do a few Shakespeare productions at the RSC in the near future.
Have the differences between British and Chinese theatre culture affected your preparation for this role?
My knowledge of the Chinese theatre culture is very little so I can’t answer that question, but since my character is a ghost for a large part of the play, much of my research has involved delving into the East Asian spiritual world which has been such a joy since I am a massive fan of all things horror […] We actually have a fabulous ghost expert (Jo Palazuelos-Krukowski ) teaching us about the cultural traditions of ghosts in China which has helped a lot in preparation for my role.
Snow in Midsummer is a famous Chinese classical drama, but new to many British audiences. Can you introduce the story for us?
I’d never heard of Snow in Midsummer until I workshopped the play last year. It tells the tale of a young widow who has been framed for a murder she didn’t commit. On the day of her execution, she curses the town with a three year drought and returns as a ghost to seek justice.
Describe your character, Dou Yi. How do you both your character and Snow in Midsummer as a whole resonate in 2017?
Dou Yi is a young widow who was sold by her mother at 7 and brought up by a woman she calls Mother Cai. She marries Mother Cai’s son at 17 but he loses his life during a work accident […] In the present day at age 23, Dou Yi sells palm weavings in order to make a living to support herself and now increasingly sick mother-in-law. It has been fairly easy in 2017 to find sources of inspiration for my character who seeks justice and love but is abandoned and ignored, so I believe her suffering will resonate with a modern audience in many ways.
How have rehearsals been progressing so far?
There have been quite a few major changes since I workshopped the piece in August 2016 and it has evolved continuously even as rehearsals began in January 2017. I’m very excited to be a part of Frances’ modern take of Snow in Midsummer as I think her and Justin’s (director) visions for the play are ingenious. Frances has been a huge part of the rehearsal process, constantly rewriting as she gets inspired and influenced through observing and supporting the actors and their intuitions, all the while managing to maintain the poetic language of the original translation. Thus it has been a very collaborative experience throughout. We have an incredible company of people working on this production for which I am eternally grateful.
Katie Leung can be seen in Snow in Midsummer at the Royal Shakespeare Company Swan Theatre from 23 February – 25 March. Ticket can be found here.