Theater Review: “Snow in Midsummer”, Starring Katie Leung

Snow in Midsummer, now in the last few days of its run at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, sees Katie Leung take center stage in a modern retelling of a classic Chinese tale. The production is the first in an ongoing project to bring translations of Chinese tales to a Western audience, using Guan Hanqing’s The Injustice to Dou E as its source material. With an entirely East Asian-British cast, Snow in Midsummer is a triumphant first chapter in the showcase bringing cultural diversity to the birthplace of Shakespeare and the RSC.

After a brief introduction to Leung’s character, Dou Yi, selling handmade woven animals after the death of her husband, we jump ahead to a time of hardship where the town has been beset by three years of drought. The atmosphere of tradition, created by Lily Arnold’s stage design of the white banners of Chinese screen art and symbolic creatures of Dou Yi’s crafts, is quickly shattered by a modern techno soundtrack, neon lights, and contemporary costume and script. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play brilliantly juxtaposes the traditional character of Chinese folklore with the reality of contemporary life and unsuperstitious culture. Dou Yi, now a yuan gui (冤鬼) – a restless ghost determined to have her wrongful death acknowledged – has cursed the town. Leung’s heartfelt portrayal of Dou Yi follows many traditional features of East Asian ghost folklore, beginning as a ghost with little strength to achieve any means to tell the audience her story.

The tale takes place during Ghost Month, in which spirits are free to visit the living and rituals, offerings, and superstitions are historical norms. Despite the town largely ignoring the tradition, the young Fei Fei, a devout believer in Ghost Month, becomes the audience’s guide as she reintroduces her mother and the townsfolk to the idea of spirits and is visited by “the snow girl,” who is so hungry and cold. The play’s young actresses have a weighty role as the moral innocence of the tale in this performance borne brilliantly by Zoe Lim, demanding justice for Dou Yi and refusing to let her suffering continue, going so far as to provide her with the customary white dress of Chinese ghost characters.  At the same time, these traditions are updated with the guardians of the underworld, Ox-Head and Horse-Face, portrayed in glowing neon masks, echoed by lightning-like threads highlighting the sparking tension of each complication. As the play goes on and her story comes to light, Dou Yi’s regaining vitality brings her back into the lives of the townsfolk, demanding her justice through a series of dramatic events, dreams, and powerful memories. Her story is revealed through the secrets of the townsfolk who had allowed her to be sent to her death without honoring her passing as tradition would demand.

Leung’s performance is a triumph, both hair-raisingly disconcerting in her moments of anger and sympathetic in her search for justice. She commands the stage with a mesmerizing presence, whether convulsing in the shadowy depths or gliding ghostlike to confront the audience with a piercing and unrelenting gaze.  Being the only one to break the fourth wall makes her palpable anger all the more threatening, never sure whom her next target will be.

The play explores many tensions between modern culture and tradition, whether its focus is on Buddhism and modern medicine, attitudes toward homosexuality, or the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. Set against the background of ancestral beliefs, this tension clearly shows why the story is undoubtedly relevant to any audience today. The plays shows a part of modern China where many people may be moving away from the beliefs in traditional folklore, curses, and ghosts. The messages they teach, however, about honesty, justice, and respect, force them to question their actions and remind them to put kindness for others before their own self-interest.

The play closes on March 25, 2017, but is a must-see for anyone who can make it in time. Tickets can be purchased here.