Snow in Midsummer is a modern retelling of an ancient Chinese drama, which marks the start of an ambitious cultural project translating Eastern classics into English, and Shakespeare into Chinese. The original 13th century play, by Guan Hanqing, bears all the hallmarks of traditional Chinese drama, with sung arias, mime and acrobatic feats. The RSC’s new version, written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, is transported to a contemporary setting.
Cowhig’s adaptation of this ancient tale is very successful, for the most part. The clash of spiritual superstition and modern preoccupation reflects the Chinese struggle between tradition and progress. When the widow Dou Yi (played by Katie Leung) is wrongfully executed, she proclaims that snow will fall in June, and the town of New Harmony will suffer a three year drought. Rather than heed this spiritual warning, the factory workers blame global warming, the factories and the government.
Due to the complex plot, which threads together this clash of cultures, the story of a vengeful ghost, and the twisted pride of the Zhang family, Cowhig’s treatment of this interesting meeting of East and West is inevitably heavy handed. There is a missed opportunity to unpick the relationship between Buddhist tradition and 21st-century progress; to imagine a society where the two can work together cohesively.
The beauty and simplicity of Chinese spiritual traditions are emphasised throughout the production, providing a glimpse into a culture which honours and reveres the departed. Designer Lily Arnold relishes the more traditional elements, from a fantastic dancing dragon to a Buddhist shrine lit with shimmering candles.
First and foremost, however, Snow in Midsummer is a thrilling ghost story. Anna Watson’s lighting and Claire Windsor’s sound designs combine to build the tension each time Dou Yi appears; repeated flashes and pulsing notes counting down to the widow’s next act of revenge. Justin Audibert’s direction keeps the audience on a rollercoaster of emotion, punctuating the tension with bursts of comedy.
Katie Leung gives a masterful performance as Dou Yi, establishing a crucial rapport with the audience so that we empathise with the actions of this vengeful spirit. As the living woman, Leung is bubbly, optimistic and exudes a sense of calm – even on the scaffold – which sets her apart from the browbeaten, harried workers of the town. As the ghost, Leung’s icy gaze penetrates the audience. She moves with deliberation and purpose, as though every action (however violent) is a carefully laid step in her plan for revenge. Leung’s considered, committed performance is simply mesmeric. The power she wields over the Swan Theatre is equal to that which Dou Yi holds over New Harmony.
Leung is supported by some extraordinary performances. Colin Ryan is particularly strong as Handsome Zhang, whilst Jonathan Raggett earns the bulk of the laughs as a hapless armed police officer. Emily Dao is charming as Fei-Fei, but it is a challenge for the young actress to carry such a pivotal role in the action.
Packed with twists and turns (but reasonably succinct at just one hour per act), Snow in Midsummer is a completely absorbing experience. It is a challenge to pack so many complex issues into one story; the jarring clash of tradition and progress would benefit from a more in-depth approach. However, Snow in Midsummer is only the first of the RSC’s Chinese translation project, and an exciting taste of what more is to come.
Snow in Midsummer is at the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company until Saturday 25 March; tickets can be found here.