Theater Review: Snow in Midsummer, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

It’s interesting to go to the theater with no expectations. I knew that Snow in Midsummer was a Chinese play adapted from a classic story, but I knew nothing of the plot, and had no idea what the RSC was going to present. Productions at the RSC’s smaller Swan Theatre tend to be a bit out of the ordinary. Some are by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Marlowe, Jonson, etc. – and others are contemporary. Some are highly dramatic and others are rousing comedies.

Snow in Midsummer is “the first production in our Chinese Translations Project, a cultural exchange bringing Chinese classics to a modern western audience.” The RSC has developed a partnership with China, working together on translating all of Shakespeare’s plays (not that they haven’t been translated into Mandarin Chinese before), and performing some of them in China. At the same time, the RSC will be presenting a number of Chinese works in the UK. This play was originally titled Dou E Yuan (???), or The Injustice to Dou E, and was written by Guan Hangqing during the Yuan dynasty (13th century CE); this modern version was adapted by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.

Dou Yi was executed for a murder she did not commit, and vows that if she is innocent, a drought will hit her native town, and it will snow in midsummer. The play opens with her on stage – presumably before her execution – then some of the people in the town are seen discussing the drought. The plot slowly takes form, as we see a woman, Tianyun, who comes to the town to buy the local factories. She meets Handsome Zhang who runs the factories and wants to sell them to leave and travel the world with his lover, Rocket Wu. When Handsome proposes to Rocket, Tianyun’s daughter Fei Fei tries to stop them, because of the bad omen of proposing during Ghost Month.

Snow in Midsummer production photos 2017 2017 Photo by Ikin Yum  c RSC 212744

(Photos by Ikin Yum for the RSC.)

Fei Fei has dreams of playing in the snow, and she wakes up with characters scratched on her arm: the name of Dou Yi. Tianyun starts asking questions, and finds that Dou Yi had murdered Zhang’s father, and was executed for this murder. Rocket later has chest pains when they are on the way to the factory, and it turns out that he had had a heart transplant. We later learn that the heart came not from a victim of a car accident, as Handsome had told Rocket, but from Dou Yi.

Okay, this is getting a bit complicated, and this is only the first half of the play. I won’t say any more about the plot – I wouldn’t want to spoil everything – but it turns out that there are connections between several of these characters that aren’t obvious at first.

The complicated plot drags a bit during the first half of the play, and, in the second half, a long flashback – which took me a while to see as a flashback – clears up some of the mystery. The true killer of Zhang’s father is revealed, as is Dou Yi’s relation to the other characters, and the end of the play turns out to be a bit Shakespearean.

I’m fairly familiar with classical Chinese literature, having studied a bit of Chinese, and none of the themes surprised me. I don’t, however, have enough knowledge of Chinese superstitions, which play a big role in the play (and which Tianyun mentions a number of times early on). So there’s a lot of Chinese culture that I didn’t pick up on in this production; I can imagine that those with no knowledge of Chinese literature would be even more at sea. In addition, the combination of old and new is at times jarring, but at times quite appropriate. For example, while some see the drought as caused by some sort of sprits, others talk of global warming.

At a brisk two hours – with an intermission – the play moves ahead fairly quickly, and most of the scenes are fairly short, helping to keep things going. Justin Audibert’s direction tends toward the flashy, with a couple of dance/march numbers, a lot of bright, flashing lights, and some fairly loud music at times. (And, as a sign warns at the entrance to the theater, gunshots, strong language, and distressing scenes.) The production is dragged down a bit by some acting that isn’t up to the RSC’s standards; some of the cast overact, and others just don’t have the chops. The main characters are all excellent, though Katie Leung’s Scottish accent is a bit jarring, and Colin Ryan, as Handsome Zhang, seemed as though he wants to soliloquize Hamlet at times.

Katie Leung is arguably the star of the play. Her scenes both as the living Dou Yi and her ghost hold the play together. The long scene when she is sentenced to death then executed has a bit too much Joan of Arc, and her speech before she was shot by firing squad could have been a bit less wordy; it was hard to follow, and said too much.

Snow in Midsummer production photos 2017 2017 Photo by Ikin Yum  c RSC 212773

This was an entertaining play in spite of my criticisms, and it’s a shame to see theater-goers don’t really approve of the RSC’s diversification; the theater was only about 2/3 full – this is the smaller Swan theater, with 460 seats – and the RSC has been promoting this play with deeply discounted tickets in an attempt to fill the house. (Yet the audience was quite appreciative at the end of the performance.) It’s like the recent production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which suffered the same fate, though the reviews for Snow in Midsummer are generally better. The RSC needs to get its core audience – which is mainly people in or near the Stratford area – to take more chances on unfamiliar plays. I don’t know how they can do this; perhaps a season ticket system, or some sort of discount on tickets to regular attendees…

I look forward to more Chinese plays at the RSC, though I hope this Chinese project doesn’t prevent expanding the Swan’s offerings in other directions.

Snow in Midsummer is playing at the Swan Theater through March 25.