Snow in Midsummer
by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Based on the Classical Chinese Drama by Guan Hanquin
Directed by Justin Audibert
Designer Lily Arnold
Music Ruth Chan
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 18th March 2017, 1.30
Jacqueline Chan – Mother Cai / Worker
Andrew Koji – Worker Fang / Ox-head / Police officer
Wendy Kweh – Tianyun, a businesswoman
Sarah Lam – Madame Wong, a bar hostess
Andrew Leung – Rocket Wu (Handsome’s male partner)
Katie Leung – Dou Yi
Fei-Fei – Zoe Lim (7 years old, so various)
Jonathan Raggett – Worker Zhou / People’s Armed Police Officer 3
Richard Rees – Worker Huang / Judge Wu / People’s Armed Police Officer 1
Colin Ryan – Handsome Zhang, a young (gay) entrepeneur
Lucy Sheen – Worker Chen
Kevin Shen – People’s Armed Police Officer 2
Daniel York – Doctor Lu / Master Zhang (Handsome’s father)
Ling Peng – ecru / zhonghu / jinghu
Tim Farmer, Kevon Waterman – percussion
Jack Hopkins – keyboards, programming
John Woolf – keyboards
I admit that this was the seventh one to get us an overall discount on the RSC Season. I wasn’t at all keen … I gave up on “World drama” some years ago. My younger son has spent most of the last decade in China, and before that had a huge collection of martial arts films. In the early 70s, I was drafted in to teach high level translators from Beijing (it was so long ago it was still called Peking). Their English was so good, that my task was teaching English and American politics, which is hard when discussion is absolutely forbidden, as we were within a decade of the Cultural Revolution. I think they liked me because they gave me packets of Chinese cigarettes. They all turned up at my optional extra drama improvisation classes and drove me mad. However extreme the situation, and I was fond of placing a stranger with dire problems, into a railway compartment with five strangers, or handing out cards with “good news” and “bad news” to impart, they resolved it with smiling consensus. “No problem. I will speak to your unit manager. He will speak to your boyfriend. He will send him away. Then your building supervisor will speak to your wife. She will forgive you for the sake of the party. All will be well.” I found myself wishing, “Please, please don’t come next week.” I concluded “The Chinese don’t understand ‘DRAMA.’”
Wrong. We are back with a 13th century classical play, re-imagined into contemporary China. It’s like a bloody Jacobean play. The excellent programme notes put it all in perspective. It is based on Guan Hanqing’s (no, I’d never heard of him either) play The Injustice Done to Dou E which is a surviving complete zaju or mixed media play, which would have had song, dance, mime, acrobatics, verse and dialogue. It’s the first of what promises to be a series of RSC productions of classical Chinese drama. When you hear that, you smell “sponsorship” like those Saudi Oxford college buildings, but the modernization is so critical of modern China that I think not.
Let’s not tell the whole story. It has aspects of revelation of the mystery at the heart of the play that gives it a thriller status on plot. This sort of play has a central ghost as a character … originally the ghost sang and no one else did. The ghost is Dou Yi (played by Harry Potter star Katie Leung). The play moves between the present and the events three years earlier in the modern Chinese town with the ironic name of New Harmony. Dou Yi was sold as a child to Mother Cai, as a prospective wife for her son. The son dies soon after marriage, and Dou Yi was a faithful daughter-in-law (a bit of role conditioning beloved of classic Chinese drama).
Dou Yi was convicted of murdering the local factory boss Master Zhang, and executed. She is innocent and before being shot by firing squad she says that her blood will not fall to the ground, that snow will fall in midsummer, and the town will suffer a terrible drought until justice is done and the truth comes out.
Tianyun arrives at the bar in New Harmony.
After an introductory section with Dou Yi trying to sell her palm leaf creations to the audience, we are into the town in the present, in drought, starting with a dance. Tianyun (Wendy Kweh), a businesswoman has arrived with her 7 year old daughter Fei-Fei in tow. She is there to buy the town’s ailing factories which she intends to convert to artificial flower production. Madame Wong, the bar hostess (Sarah Lam) declares that her peonies look more like peonies than the real thing. Madame Wong is also proud of her plastic palm trees … a comment on New China’s relationship with the natural world.
Handsome Zhang (Colin Ryan) embraces Rocket Wu (Andrew Leung)
The factory owner (selling it to Tianyun) is Handsome Zhang (Colin Ryan), who is gay. He plans to marry his lover, Rocket Wu, and leave New Harmony. Tianyun’s child starts to dream of the ghost and everyone in town is wary of the name of Dou Yi (who is seen on high platforms in rags) Rocket Wu starts to have heart pains. He had a transplant three years earlier, paid for by his lover, Handsome, and the operation was conducted by Doctor Lu.
Handsome Zhang (Colin Ryan)’s proposal of marriage is stopped by the child, Fei-Fei.
It is ghost month (all explained well in the programme) so when Handsome proposes marriage to Rocket (we can assume that gay marriage was not in the 13th century original). the child Fei Fei tells him you can’t marry in ghost month. Also she can’t have her nails cut because it will bring ghosts out (bit later she asks to have her nails cut … Oooh!)
Flashback: The execution of Duo Yi
We move back and forward … the execution by firing squad has a great last speech by Dou Yi, and indeed the blood appears on a huge cloth and drips without reaching the ground. This entire scene is as good as you get in theatre.
Katie Leung as Duo Yi
It becomes apparent that her execution was hastened, after her refusal to become the Judge’s mistress, because Doctor Lu is doing a sideline in transplants and has seven customers waiting for her fresh spare parts. Of course, it’s her heart that Rocket received, and at the end of act one the ghost wrenches it back out of him and parades it dripping around the stage. Phew!
Anyone who had a heart … Katie Leung as the ghost of Dou Yi
In Act Two, we learn why she was innocent and what really happened when Master Zhang was killed. No plot spoilers, but expect rape, murder, revelations of origin. The Full Jacobean, in fact.
We get electric lighting effects, pounding beat music, dance, stylized martial arts movements, a lot of comedy (the firing squad doing a selfie with the dead victim was very funny). The Frankenstein story must be an influence along with the original.
It’s all done with East Asian actors, or rather actors of some East Asian ethnicity. This must be a new PC word in the programme and reviews, as the general division in British English (enshrined in our supermarket food sections) was that Asian meant South-Asian, or Indian sub-continent, and Oriental always meant China, Japan, Korea, Thailand.
It’s an extremely entertaining, exciting and vibrant production. In production terms, you can’t fault anything. I have a couple of grouses though …
First is accents. They wisely decided to do it in colloquial modern English. This is the correct choice, though I have met Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Britons who have a “Chinese” accent (particularly on end consonants) even when they are native English speakers who don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese fluently. Katie Leung gives a tremendous performance … she sounds, acts and looks fantastic. My issue is the opening scene. She is Scottish. A professional actor should be able to turn up or down the accent level. As noted before, Scots like David Tennant and James McAvoy can turn them off altogether when Hollywood beckons, but then turn the volume up to EXTRA STRONG for British chat shows. At the start, Ms Leung has an audience interaction solo spot, which is improvised and funny. However we missed what she was saying in the first minute, because we were expecting either neutral English or Chinese accented, and broad Scots was so incongruous in the situation that we didn’t adjust to it for a good minute. Later she tones it down and is perfectly clear and comprehensible (though still definitely Scottish accented), but in the situation it is incongruous … why would Do Yi have a different accent to everyone else? Be proud of your accent, but if a long career is coming (and it is) you should be able to adjust to the situation.
Along the same path, one of the three soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army suddenly adopts an American accent … which he didn’t have as a worker in the bar. Why? Well, you may say, “Why not?’ but sorry, it was irrational. Mostly though, the cast are “neutral English.”
Next. There are problems with the script writing. In storytelling terms, it’s extremely good but not in dialogue writing … sorry, you can’t put paradox, whomever and fuck! in such close proximity and get away with it. The colloquial / formal clashes keep coming. Frankly, the script is stilted and somewhat wooden. The writer definitely does not have dialogue as a strong point. Mind you, “stilted” and “formal” may help it to sound Chinese, which words like ‘unit manager’ do already. I’m not sure why you need a Literal Translator and a Dramaturg as well as a writer.
Paul Taylor in The Independent, felt similar misgivings:
Ironically, the translation that they have used here seems to me the rockiest feature of the production – particularly when trying to present the tough tones of colloquial modernity. Referring to her son’s action on the nipple as a baby, Madame Wong declares that “Even without teeth, Handsome was one hungry bastard”. “Comrade, your concern warms my heart, but hard liquor’s the only lubricant I need”, explains Worker Fang. Your ear can’t spot the joins between bits that are meant to be funny and those inadvertently so. The fearless acting is thus left looking a little disjointed at times.
The acting is all good, but variable in style … from easily natural, to stylized to a touch wooden. Daniel York switches between two to differentiate his roles as Master Zhang (in flashback), and Doctor Lu.
I have to say a plot issue only hit me the day after we saw it … it never occurred on the day. When Duo Yi is executed by firing squad, she has a target on her heart, which is how firing squads do it. Wouldn’t three bullets have rendered the heart useless for transplants?
They are extremely lucky that the child as Fei Fei was so good … the child’s part is so central to the plot, that it’s risky as in Britain you need three kids. When the Shaolin Temple first toured Britain with the Wheel of Life martial arts spectacular, they always had small children. It was Chinese tradition that the temple adopted and trained orphans, and they performed with them. The restrictions on children on stage here mean a variable for the other actors … OK, it happens in Shakespeare too, but probably not this vital to the story.
Overall … production is easily a 4 star, but the dialogue writing drops it one for me.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Michael Billington, The Guardian ***
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph ***
Paul Taylor, The Independent ***
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