Resonate writer Lucy Sheen plays Worker Chen in the re-imagination of Guan Hanqing's classic Chinese play
Snow In Midsummer is a new adaptation, written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig (World of Extreme Happiness) and currently playing at The RSC in The Swan Theatre until March 25th.
It’s just another adaptation. But, that is it, it isn’t, (as the adverts used to say) this isn’t just any adaptation, of an obscure (to Western theatre going audiences) classic Chinese play.
It is an adaptation of the 13th-century Chinese classic, by Guan Hanqing, often referred to as The Injustice to Dou E.
Flashes of déjà vu momentarily loom, taking me back to the autumn of 2012 and the RSC’s controversial production of The Orphan of Zhao.
Lessons have been learnt and learnt well, from that episode. Kudos to the RSC, as a famous countryman is quoted as saying:
“Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them.” – Bruce Lee
Fast-forwarding to 2017 and Snow In Midsummer, cast using only British East Asian actors. As a fellow actor, activist and untiring advocate (amongst many other things) Daniel York said as we gathered for our first preview.
Who’d have thought eh?
Yes, who would have thought, that just five years prior the RSC was steeped in a racial casting controversy over the lack of British East Asian actors being used in their production of The Orphan of Zhao a play commonly dubbed as “the Chinese Hamlet”. Yet here we are all twelve actors, a composer, PK our ASM (assistant stage manager), the assistant director Jennifer Tang and the production photographer Ikin Yum all British East Asians; working at the RSC, a hallowed ground for anyone involved in Theatre making in the UK.
The RSC have done more than make amends. They have put their money where most people’s mouths are. Snow In Midsummer is the result. Putting pay to the lie that there are only two or three British East Asian actors worthy of consideration.
As Justin Audibert put it in his recent pre-show directors talk, “on stage, we have British East Asians in their first decade alongside those in their second, third, fourth, fifth right up to their ninth decade.”
It is truly remarkable, a beautiful thing in itself. Something that I don’t think any of us who were very vocal in our protests to the RSC, regarding The Orphan of Zhao, dreamed would ever happen. It is a coming of age for the British East Asian actor. For so long we have been cast as sojourners, perennial outsiders, heavily accented and woefully inept in our command of the English language. Represented either as sexualised and fetishised females or as asexual (at best) at worst de-sexualised males. Capable only of brutality and inscrutably low behaviour.
The RSC has assembled an ensemble of twelve of Britain’s finest actors of East Asian descent. Lead superbly by Katie Leung. Every single actor that places their foot on the Swan stage has earned the right, I am hoping that Snow In Midsummer marks a pivotal point for British East Asian actor and finally, our full inclusion into the cultural landscape of Britain.
Snow In Midsummer has been adapted by the Asian American writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig (World Of Extreme Happiness). In my opinion, Frances does not pull any punches. It is a haunting, harrowing, brutal and poetic retelling of an ancient text. Made all the more powerful and potent having cast the entire production with East Asian actors. It is a political piece. In my view all theatre, all art is “political”. But the mere act of twelve British East Asian actors taking to the stage each night, whether we like it or not, is in of itself a political, cultural and artistic statement. Maybe one day it will cease to have any meaning other than the fact, we as a society become accustomed to seeing diversity populating our stages. That actors of colour cease to be the exception and become the norm, along with their Caucasian colleagues and peers.
We’re not there yet. Snow In Midsummer is one of the first steps of many on that journey, towards greater understanding, inclusivity and equality.
For those of you reading this article who are not BAME, it’s always a challenge explaining why the representation, inclusion and accurate portrayal of a minority is so important. Here are some of the thoughts from the company of Snow In Midsummer.
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig – writer.
I asked Frances what she hoped her adaptation of Snow In Midsummer would achieve:
“I hope it will attract and engage diverse, intergenerational audiences throughout the world, be produced at many different kinds of theaters and in so doing provide high exposure acting opportunities for East Asian actors all over and, most importantly, make people think about things they rarely take time to consider.”
Colin Ryan actor, (who identifies himself as Thai-English) – Handsome Zhang.
I asked Colin what it meant to him to be doing this show at the RSC.
“Even though I don’t identify as East Asian, I feel immense pride of being part of this cast. I haven’t seen anything like we are doing on stage before which goes to show just how exciting and innovative theatre can be by embracing artists from different cultures and experiences. To be able to represent a community that is extremely under-represented is a privilege and so important for other Asian people to feel they are a part of society and for young Asian people to see stories they can see themselves in.”
Sarah Lam – Nurse Wong.
I asked Sarah what her thoughts were on why East Asians just don’t seem to figure in British culture and what if anything this RSC production might mean for British East Asians.
“I’ve always felt, directors, actors, casting directors, reflect a much wider group of people, that see British East Asians as somewhat invisible. As a cultural group you don’t see many East Asians going to the theatre unless it’s a play that is specifically related to their culture. What I find deeply frustrating is that you never, well rarely ever see British East Asians in something where there is not a reason why they are East Asian. Often you can look at any theatre company and you’ll see at least one or two Black or South Asian not necessarily cast for their race. But that just doesn’t happen with East Asians, we’re just not seen East Asian artists to be part of British culture. I’m very proud to be part of this cast, it’s a fantastic cast. It’s a wonderful play, I’m highly stimulated by it. The fact that a major British theatre company is now addressing its own response to diversity, putting all its resources and technical support behind this production to make it the best it can possibly be is truly inspiring. It’s not that it’s better late than never, it’s the fact that they (RSC) are now addressing it and I am really proud to be a part of this.”
Kevin Shen – the People’s Armed Officer 2.
I asked Kevin Why do you think that British East Asians are not treated in the same manner as other British Minority Ethnics (the fact the Yellowface by some, is deemed acceptable i.e. the recent Print Room controversy)
“I feel that oftentimes the mainstream doesn’t recognize East Asians as being a minority that needs to be recognized or respected. I think East Asians have a history of being viewed as outsiders or foreigners, and thus there seems to be a feeling that it is okay for anyone to portray us because subconsciously (or not) people think that we generally don’t exist.”
P.K. – assistant stage manager.
Why it is that even in the 21st century British East Asians still do not figure on the cultural landscape of this country?
“I think that it is because we have not been outspoken enough, perhaps I don’t know enough historic background of British East Asians in the UK – but I don’t think we’ve had any issues or large enough event/rally (unlike the black community) which is definitely a good thing, but it’s making us lose out on creating history perhaps. Or it could be as basic as that our skin colour isn’t “dark” enough to make a visual impact – that’s a whole other conversation.”
Jacqueline Chan – Mother Cai.
I asked her what she thought about doing this play at the RSC.
“It means a great deal to me. It means that we (British East Asians) are being treated with recognition and respect. Snow In Midsummer shows that not only is this company appreciative of the culture of the “real China” but of the East Asians resident in Britain.”
Katie Leung – Dou Yi.
Katie carries this show with a maturity, grace and commitment far beyond her years.
This is what Katie had to say about the production.
“Being the first all British East Asian cast at the RSC is fundamental on a personal level but also on a much wider scale. I am grateful to be surrounded by and to be working with the most generous and talented of people, all of whom have faced similar obstacles as ethnic minority actors and are actively fighting for better representation in the industry as we speak. This opportunity to tell a complex tale which involves us all playing multifaceted characters in one space (thus diminishing racial stereotypes) and that space being The Swan at The RSC, is a major victory in itself.”
Daniel York- Master Zhang, Dr Lu
I asked Daniel York what being in this production at the RSC meant to him. Which is fitting, as Daniel’s commitment and activism regarding the visibility and representation of East Asian Artists is unwavering.
“What’s amazing about Snow In Midsummer though is, not only that it’s all East Asian on a big stage produced by the biggest theatre company in the world, it’s the sheer range, power and diversity of the cast. We go across all age ranges and demographics all the way through to the three primary school girls sharing the role of Fei Fei. It’s almost profound to be part of something like that, especially in a play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig who writes with an existential poeticism that’s near unmatched on the British stage in my humble opinion.”
There will be detractors and those that can’t quite see why any of this should be of relevance. I suspect, that such detractors will never have had to cope with social and cultural ostracisation or racial prejudice. They will never have suffered the ignominy, humiliation, hatred and societal isolation based solely on the colour of one’s skin.
Snow In Midsummer is a must-see. A production so special on so many levels, from the innovative, evocative and visually stunning staging to the engaging ensemble acting. And on a personal level, to have been through an entire rehearsal process where being East Asian wasn’t a token gesture. Or being the only BAME who was not Black or South Asian is on a par with a sightless person suddenly regaining their vision. That is how monumental and profound this experience has been for me. There is no getting away from the fact that this is a ground-breaking piece of British Theatre. It speaks to the very heart of what is currently happening globally and yet it is a tale that was written in the 13th century.