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REVIEW: Snow in Midsummer at RSC

Katie Leung as Dou Yi in Snow in Midsummer at the Swan until the end of the month
Katie Leung as Dou Yi in Snow in Midsummer at the Swan until the end of the month

China 1, Rome 0 (so far!)

Ladies and gentlemen, fans of the theatre and its amazing spectacles, roll up, roll up and witness the battle of the imperialist regimes!

Before the exciting Rome season gets properly underway at the RSC, Snow in Midsummer is enjoying a modest month-long run at the Swan. American playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s has written Snow in Midsummer as a contemporary reimagining of Guan Hanqing’s ancient Chinese classic drama, The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth - written during the 13th century Yuan Dynasty. It is the first fruit of the RSC’s ongoing Chinese classics translation project — which aims to introduce Western audiences to these unknown literary treasures. Happily — after the fallout from the ‘yellowface’ controversies that have seen white actors playing Chinese characters — the cast here have East Asian origins.

So all in all an amiable project, but surely just an amuse-bouche before we get to the meaty main course of the season? Not so!

Under the steady hand of director Justin Audibert (last in town with his furiously energetic Jew of Malta), this enthralling production of Snow in Midsummer sees the Yuang Dynasty throw down the drama gauntlet to the Roman Empire. Metaphorically speaking of course. For a start it includes the three best death scenes witnessed on these stages in a long time (other nominations on a postcard or e-mail, please…). It’s fabulously Shakespearean in its visceral goriness: plucking of a beating heart, execution by firing squad and self-administered rat poison yield shocking deaths and world-stopping moments of dramatic awesomeness. Follow that, Titus Andronicus!

Cowhig has made the ancient story modern and accessible without losing any of its folklore-like magic. New Harmony is a remote factory town… As she is about to be executed, for a murder she did not commit, young widow Dou Yi vows that if she is innocent snow will fall in midsummer and a catastrophic drought will strike.

Three years later, a businesswoman, Tianyun, visits the parched, locust-plagued town to take over an ailing factory. When her daughter, Fei-Fei, is tormented by an angry ghost, Tianyun must expose the injustices Dou Yi suffered before the curse destroys every living thing.

The story has a soap opera-like number of plot drivers: love, rape, corruption, unwanted pregnancies, siblings who don’t know they’re siblings, a son who doesn’t know who his real mother is, murder, execution, injustice and vengeful ghosts. As the plot twists and turns, and time leaps forwards and backs, one occasionally feels giddy and lost, although not necessarily unpleasantly so. Designer Lily Arnold’s urbanized, neon-lit set and Ruth Chan’s frenetic electro score wonderfully conjure the sense of a town in claustrophobic, deathly meltdown… The chaos is controlled, however, and as the play heads towards its clever and moving denouement all becomes bitingly clear.

Snow in Midsummer also does the tricky job of covering such trendy issues as climate change and organ harvesting without seeming preachy.

Of some stellar performances here the two that stood out for me were Katie Leung as the vengeful Dou Yi and Colin Ryan as Handsome Zhang, the gay son of the factory owner Master Zhang, both of whom are complicit in Dou Yi’s downfall. Leung and Ryan give great fearless physicality to their performances, and, excuse the cliché, are definitely ones to watch.

So come on Rome, what you got?

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