(Disclaimer: this is one of my stream-of-consciousness reviews, stuffed with rambly excitement and tangents.)
I recently made the trek up to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Snow in Midsummer, the 13th-century Chinese classic by Guan Hanqing also known as The Injustice to Dou E, in a radical new adaptation by playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and directed by Justin Audibert. Audience members filtering into the velvety Swan Theatre may have been enchanted by a large tapestry in the style of a Chinese ink painting draped over the stage, or the trill of birds, lutes and flutes. Scottish actress Katie Leung, girlish and coy, is trying to sell her weavings to those sitting in the front row. But this is all clever misdirection that relies on certain expectations of “the Oriental play”. Leung scampers off stage and – bam! – the chintzy tapestry falls, neon lights set the stage ablaze, a DJ on the overhang above the stage is dropping some heavy beats, and we’ve been transported to what looks like the heart of present-day Hong Kong.
It’s a gritty urban space called New Harmony, where the well-heeled industrialist Tian Yun (Wendy Kweh) is set to purchase a large factory from the young tycoon Handsome (Colin Ryan), who’s excited to finally embark on a round-the-world vacation with his boyfriend Rocket (Andrew Leung). But what would Snow in Midsummer be without a festering family secret and a delightfully vengeful spirit? Katie Leung’s Dou Yi claws her way out of the grave to haunt Tianyun’s seven-year-old daughter, Fei-Fei (Zoe Lim), and a dark curse begins to spread across the ailing town.
Seeing this slick, sexy production at the Swan Theatre had me imagining what it would be like if the posh Beijing People’s Art Theatre did a contemporary adaptation of Cao Yu’s hyper-incestuous plot-twisty Thunderstorm (1934) in Kardashian reality TV style. (They would never, but a girl can dream.) Audibert’s flamboyant, confident take on Snow in Midsummer blends the tropes of popular Hong Kong television serials – the kind that knows exactly how to whet and sate the appetites of millions of viewers – with high classical drama. The Yuan Dynasty play pre-dates Shakespeare by about 200 years, but through a Western lens there’s inevitably a touch of the Shakespearean about it, and Snow in Midsummer is a veritable feast of big, meaty dramatic arcs. The emphatic, flickering neon signs on stage are emblazoned with the themes of the play, including 正义 (zheng yi; justice), 冤枉 (yuan wang; usually translated as being falsely or wrongly accused of something, but loaded with a particularly potent sense of bitterness), and 无辜 (wu gu; innocence) – obvious to a Chinese-speaking audience but a nice touch of subliminal messaging to those who don’t understand the language.
This production is showy and grand, utterly horrifying but also very funny – a vivid, violent death in one scene may immediately be followed by a bawdy, debauched one (my favourite scene might have been the three People’s Army soldiers exchanging advice on flirty text messaging), a nod to the fact that Shakespeare isn't the only one blending epic deaths, buffoons and the use of comic relief. Sure, the second half drags its feet with the technical exposition required to set up a series of “oh no they didn't!” plot twists. But, oh, these outrageous, juicy plot twists, they had my Hong Kong drama serial loving heart. And they would probably have your heart too, if you gasped when Darth Vader declared to Luke Skywalker: “No, I am your father!”
And then there are the homages to Asia’s particular genre specialty – the genuinely terrifying horror film. Did I spy the long-haired Sadako from The Ring (1998) in one of Dou Yi’s appearances? The ghost’s relentless desire for revenge immediately brings up Ju-On (2000), the grudge that keeps on giving – and there are strong echoes of the Pang Brothers’ The Eye (2002), in which a cornea transplant goes horribly wrong. Of note to those who have already seen the play – in Singapore, the Human Organ Transplant Act was only passed in 1987, and huge debate across members of all religions surrounded its amendments in 2004; the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore issued a fatwa in 2007 so that Muslims could also come under the Act. Even as a secular nation where there’s a strong separation of religion and state, the connection between organ donation and the afterlife was something that we, as a country, wrestled with well into the late 20th and early 21st century.
Which leads me to one of my favourite things about this contemporary update of Guan’s play: its matter-of-fact inclusion of the supernatural as part of a daily lived experience. “Chinese scholars” don’t need to tell you that strong beliefs in the supernatural still exist in the East – the same way Western/English scholars don’t need to tell you that strong beliefs in the supernatural do still exist in the West. Whether you have deep convictions and roots in Christianity or Taoism, one thing is for certain – both religions and cultures are tied to a strong belief in the spiritual and supernatural. And these everyday beliefs are everyday fixtures in Snow in Midsummer, woven into the play and normalised beautifully and generously. In several scenes, there’s a meticulous altar to the Goddess of Mercy and, later on, an instantly recognizable funeral altar laden with food and gifts to the deceased. None of these cultural traditions are “a curiosity” – in the play, a routine visit to a temple is part of the fabric of everyday living the way one might go for weekly mass or a bible study. Superstition and science not only rub up against each other – they coexist.
Snow in Midsummer is a good exemplar of how a complicated Chinese classic can become a pacy contemporary adaptation – one that’s reverent in its treatment of Asian work and translation, but also deliciously irreverent when it comes to playing with tropes and conventions, whether it’s melodrama or horror. This production marks the beginning of the RSC’s Chinese Translations Project, and – permit me this Asian stereotype – it looks like a downright auspicious one.
Stray thoughts, including mild spoilers:
I’m pretty sure there are people in Hong Kong whose names are indeed Handsome and Rocket. (Names I’ve come across: Virus, Bubbles, Drizzle, Apple, you get the idea.)
This could have been completely arbitrary, but I loved how the various UK accents mapped relatively well onto their Chinese counterparts. Katie Leung has a Scottish lilt, and her character Dou Yi is also from the north. Wendy Kweh is from Singapore, and I definitely mapped my archetype of the affluent, practical Singaporean businesswoman onto Tianyun. Like I said, it was probably unintentional, but so much fun to imagine.
I totally called the death by rat poison. I KNEW IT.