Snow in Midsummer review at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘passionate and affecting’

Scene from Snow in Midsummer at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Ikin Yumi

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play Snow in Midsummer transplants the 13th century drama, The Injustice Done to Dou E, into contemporary China. It tells the story of Dou Yi, a woman wrongfully executed for murder, and the quest to bring an end to the three-year drought her death has wrought.

It’s an expansive, ambitious play about trauma and passion which sees ancient weather curses collide with climate change, vengeful ghosts with corrupt officials.

Against a backdrop of poverty, air pollution, Western consumerism and superstition, soldiers take selfies with dead bodies and a ghost sports winged trainers and a Louis Vuitton handbag. A classical epic, it feels like it contains the “ten-thousand things” which Dou Yi sees in the universe; too much to extrapolate from one viewing.

Justin Audibert’s vibrant production overflows with theatricality as Anna Watson’s lighting flickers in strips of electric teal and pools of amber, and Ruth Chan’s music mixes an erhu’s lament with pumping bass and synth. Some moments are viscerally affecting – none more so than the ending of the first half, in which the ghost of Dou Yi (a chilling Katie Leung) tears her living heart out of its surrogate body, parading round the bloody hunk of meat whilst performing movements evocative of Chinese opera. It’s a moment of strange, terrible pathos.

Most importantly, perhaps, following the Print Room’s recent yellowface controversy, it’s a joy to see an Royal Shakespeare Company stage play host to a canonical Chinese text, populated by a uniformly excellent ensemble of East Asian actors.

A passionate, contemporary adaptation of a classical Chinese drama