Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's rendition of the Guan Hanqing classic Chinese play will leave you speechless
The RSC’s production of Snow in Midsummer is a much needed testament to the talents of the East Asian community.
Times are hard for an East Asian actor. Whilst the likes of Donnie Yen and Constance Wu continue to further embed their mark on Hollywood, rising East Asian actors are faced with barriers in their career paths. Wreckless casting and irresponsible behaviour such as that of The Print Room and numerous Hollywood productions results in far too many cases of whitewashing. Liberal America has been fearing President Trump’s wall but the East Asian acting community has already been facing one for a while.
Even the RSC found itself in hot water surrounding The Orphan of Zhao yellowface controversy back in 2012. Five years on, the RSC is now holding a play written by an East Asian, based on a classic Chinese drama, and led by an East Asian cast. Therefore, as acting opportunities are limited for the East Asian community, Snow In Midsummer could not have come at a better time.
Of course, the East Asian community isn’t completely void of acting opportunities, nor does it lack the fortitude to pursue their own productions and opportunities. Amy Ng’s play Shangri-La was fantastic and showcased the talents of East Asians in the theatre world. Rebecca Boey’s British Chinese web comedy Jade Dragon is also proving to cause a stir in the local community. However, by having the backing of the RSC – the UK’s most established theatre production house which has an unparalled legacy in the industry – Snow In Midsummer is arguably the biggest break for the East Asian acting community.
Consequently, this puts a great deal of pressure on Cowhig’s play. If Snow In Midsummer is a success, the RSC and mainstream production houses will have a reason to further invest in East Asian actors and East Asian-themed plays. However, if the Chinese drama fails to win over audiences, production houses will be deterred from even touching anything similar.
Fortunately, Snow In Midsummer is absolutely incredible. Personally, I’m not a huge theatre-goer and I can’t say how the play compares to the usual standard of RSC plays, but what I do know is that I was blown away.
Snow In Midsummer is an extremely dark and chilling play. The plot revolves around Dou Yi (Katie Leung), a young widow who was executed for a murder she did not commit. Seeking justice, the spirit of Dou Yi returns to her hometown that betrayed her, New Harmony, to seek justice. As the plot twists and turns and the mystery surrounding the Dou Yi’s execution unravels, the audience finds themselves heavily immersed in the world New Harmony. Consequently, when the spirit of Dou Yi haunts the town, the audience share the horror endured by the characters, making for a truly terrifying experience.
Katie Leung, who I knew as the adorable and timid Cho Chang from the Harry Potter franchise delivers an incredibly moving and haunting performance. Leung’s transformation from innocent and cheery Dou Yi, to wrongfully condemned and pleading Dou Yi, to vengeful and ruthless Dou Yi showcases her as a truly compelling and versatile actress.
Whilst Dou Yi is serves as the leading character of Snow In Midsummer, the play actually follows Tianyun more closely – a business woman who ventures into New Harmony and plays witness to the eerie happenings of the town. Played by Wendy Kweh, Tianyu gradually becomes more involved in the town’s unusual situation and without giving too much away, slowly becomes an integral part of the town. As a result, Tianyu is a crucial character, and Kweh plays the role perfectly. Although her character isn’t as testing as Dou Yi, Kweh convincingly plays a concerned mother whose traumatic past still haunts her.
Colin Ryan plays the role of Handsome Zhang, the son of Master Zhang, whose death was blamed on Dou Yi. I’m personally unfamiliar with Ryan’s prior work, but he certainly excelled in this production. Although not quite as easily defined as other plot lines, if Dou Yi is effectively the protagonist, Handsome Zhang is subsequently the antagonist. Handsome Zhang is conflicted and corrupted but yet Ryan’s moving performance earns the audience’s sympathy. Ryan tackles Handsome Zhang’s multilayered complexity almost effortlessly. Without giving too much away, Handsome Zhang is a compassionate but morally dubious and even sinister character – all polaraising characteristics but yet compelling due to Ryan’s talented acting.
The rest of the cast was equally as impressive. Andrew Leung plays Rocket Wu, Handsome Zhang’s true love who was innocently caught up in the sinister activities of the town. Due to Leung’s portrayal of the character, Rocket Wu is easily likeable and the audience certainly sides with him. Daniel York takes on the role of grumpy Dr Lu whose dark secrets continue to trouble him, as well as the fierce, intimidating and frightening Master Zhang. York is fantastic and his stage presence is captivating. Sarah Lam who plays Madam Wong and Jacqueline Chan who plays Mother Cai are both successful in translating the mannerisms and wisdom of the traditional Chinese elderly. Kudos to Emily Dao too, who played young Fei-Fei – she undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of her in the acting world.
In terms of the presentation of the play, Snow In Midsummer strives and achieves excellence too. The costume design that ranges from the tattered rags of the impoverished to the elegant and traditional dress worn by the spirit of Dou Yi reinforces the class differences between the characters. Coupled with the creative stage design, New Harmony feels like a realistic living and busy town.
Cowhig’s reimagination of the classic drama in a western production house balances Chinese elements perfectly. Whilst there’s no escaping the fact that Snow In Midsummer is a Chinese play (nor should there be), the audience isn’t constantly reminded that ethnicity and race is at the forefront of this play. Unlike other East Asian-led productions such as television series Fresh Off The Boat or Dr Ken that drive home the message that they are East Asian productions, Cowhig’s play isn’t overbearing when showcasing East Asian elements. Instead of East Asian actors playing shouty roles to challenge the issues facing the community (which I am all for), Snow In Midsummer simply puts the spotlight on East Asian talent with an East Asian themed setting. The Chinese elements have enough presence to retain the feel of authenticity but are subtle enough to put the proudly showcase the actors’ incredible performances.
Cowhig has also done a fantastic job of reinventing the play to suit the modern day. Dou Yi’s spirit triggers New Harmony to consider how class division, gender inequality and climate change are gradually eroding their society – insights that are very much of important relevance today. Furthermore, the use of smartphones and contemporary costumes, as well as colloquial slang all contribute to the immersion of the modern day audience to the troubled town.
Snow In Midsummer is a must watch. Compelling and moving acting coupled with a gripping plotline offer an immersive experience for even the least seasoned theatre-goer. Whatsmore, Snow In Midsummer will serve as a pillar of British East Asian success in the acting community. The fact that the play is presented by the formidable RSC means there is no excuse for decision makers in the industry to ignore it. Casting scouts and directors who were oblivious or dubious about our community now have the proof that our community is in fact, talented. Finally.