Gun shots. Blood smatters against a fluttering white flag. A young woman lay limp and lifeless. The execution is done. Returning their rifles to an upright position, three soldiers march toward the body. Without courtesy, the woman is hoisted to a sitting position. In a remarkable show of disrespect, one of the soldiers casually wields his smart phone and proceeds to snap a ‘selfie’ with the dead.
The scene for this injustice is ‘New Harmony’, an obscure factory town in contemporary China. No longer does it seem that the Chinese treat their dead with the reverence of ancestors past, but rather with the disposability of the products that they manufacture. The name of the disposal dead woman is Dou Yi. She has been executed for a murder she did not commit. Unwitting to her executioners, Dou Yi’s death is to resurrect a seemingly forgotten, ancient Chinese spirituality. In her last moments Dou Yi vows that if she is found innocent, snow will fall in midsummer and thereafter a great drought will befall New Harmony.
Sure enough, snow begins to fall. The soldiers are spooked. Blackness envelops the stage. A haunting, ghost-like figure contorts about in the darkness. It is the ghost of Dou Yi, vengeful and unforgiving.
Snow in Midsummer is an attempt to find meaning in the China of today. Drawing upon Guan Hanqing’s classical Chinese drama ‘The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth’ Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has sought to reconcile China’s superstitious past with its pragmatic present. In the western-psyche, China appears only as a gargantuan economic giant or as a wizened old man; on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company she is both.
Driven by the forceful and affecting performance of Katie Leung as Dou Yi, Snow in Midsummer succeeds in reimagining China as a place of manifold cultures, attitudes and temporalities. Beyond the performance of Katie Leung and Dou Yi, there are also impressive shows from Colin Ryan as Handsome Zhang, a young and brash gay go-getter and Wendy Kweh as Tianyun, an ambitious but sincere businesswoman whose daughter is haunted by the ghost of Dou Yi.
Intriguing and challenging, one will most certainly leave Snow in Midsummer feeling that China is both ‘leaping forward’ and ‘looking back’
Throughout the narrative a temporal dissonance presents the China of today as the China of yesterday, with scenes shifting from the tranquillity of the forest to the commotion of the urbane; neon lights, electronic music, dancing, marching and all. Snow in Midsummer attempts to act as a social commentary, touching upon issues of homosexuality, gender inequality and consumerism, depicting a breakdown of social unity in a nation so achingly polarised between old and new.
At first, Snow in Midsummer’s approach to these issues appears slightly contrived. It seems as though Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig is keen to collect as many contentious, contemporary issues within her narrative as possible. Nevertheless, as the play proceeds, it became apparent that these issues are a valuable way of connecting the injustices of contemporary China with those of Guan Hanqing’s original. Indeed, almost the entirety of the second half is rooted in the harrowing trauma of Dou Yi’s quest for revenge, allowing the play to find a meaning that transcends the polarities of old and new China.
The ghost of Dou Yi serves as the vehicle for this critique. Just as in the Ming and Qing dynasties of old, the ghost is the embodiment of injustice, the endless voice of those who have been illed in the realm of the living. Dou Yi’s spectre permeates the consciousness of each and every inhabitant of New Harmony. Hers is the voice of all those undone by the cruel injustices of Chinese economic progress; the peasant discarded as but a commodity, the woman as a vassal for man’s pleasures and posterity and more universally, those ancient Chinese beliefs and rituals that have been silenced by the forces of modernity.
Intriguing and challenging, one will most certainly leave Snow in Midsummer feeling that China is both ‘leaping forward’ and ‘looking back’; factory smoke, falling upon Chinese towns like snow in summer… and with it bringing the Ghost of Chinese past. New and old balanced in precarious harmony.
Runs until March 25, at the RSC Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Image: Ikin Yum (c) RSC