26th Apr, 2017

REVIEW - Snow in Midsummer, RSC, Stratford

Matthew Salisbury 3rd Mar, 2017 Updated: 3rd Mar, 2017

Snow in Midsummer

Swan Theatre, RSC

A STRONG sense of the ancient crashing headlong into the modern runs right through this fascinating production which is itself a jarring mix of classic Chinese storytelling and 21st century drama.

Based on a 13th century tale, Frances Ya-chu Cowhig’s Snow in Midsummer follows the outcome of a wronged woman’s curse on a regional town. Sentenced to be executed for murder Dou Yi brings the shock snowfall of the title and then condemns the town to a three-year drought.

While those whose fates are caught up in the drama struggle to make sense of life gradually drying up around them, we are treated to a beautifully-judged unravelling mystery the ultimate solution of which is as satisfying as it is overwhelmingly tragic.

While staying true to the roots of the original, this script weaves in modern references, modern setting sand modern language to great effect.

There are strong performances throughout but it is a trio of female roles which really catch the eye. Katie Leung is excellent as the victim of the underlying injustice, the nature of which emerges in a chilling late scene. Given that most of the role is delivered as a rather slow-moving, soul-tortured ghost, it’s a performance surprisingly full of nuance and life. Wendy Kweh is equally varied as a businesswoman convinced that her wealth and power will see her through most situations. It doesn’t. And perhaps the star of the show is Emily Dao as her young child, not least because the part is so well written that it steers well clear of sentimentality and provides wisdom and humour in equal amounts.

Lily Arnold’s design makes full use of the Swan’s height and by snapping effortlessly from ancient scroll paintings to downtown neon via temples and street vendors, affords the whole thing a fluidity it could easily lack.

There’s a thumping modern electronic soundtrack from Ruth Chan and imaginative use of shape-defining ribbon lights and stage effects. The combination of all of that means the whole show is always animated and watchable. Everything about the production looks well-drilled from the intricately plotted scene changes to the choreographed arrival of the military.

The playing out of the full saga itself is strong enough to capture the imagination, but for those wanting a deeper insight into the culture it sprang from there are intriguing undercurrents about the ethics and efficiencies of heart transplants that are as much to do with the survival of the individual as they are to do with revitalising an entire nation.

Never dropping in pace and interest, and fully worth its two-hour playing time, this is a production to savour.

Matthew Salisbury