In a modern-day Chinese province ravaged by drought, Handsome Zhang (Colin Ryan) proposes to his boyfriend Rocket Wu (Andrew Leung.) But it's the month dedicated to honouring the dead, and actions like proposals that celebrate the living run the risk of attracting an offended ghost.
Tianyun (Wendy Kweh) has just bought the local factories from Handsome's family and moved into what used to be his father's house; once the spirits have been provoked, her daughter Fei-Fei (Emily Dao, alternating with Zoe Lim and Sophie Wong) starts seeing the ghost of the young woman executed for murdering Handsome's father (Daniel York.) Dou Yi (Katie Leung) protests her innocence, and points out that the miracles she prophesied would follow her death if she was telling the truth, have all come to pass: Her blood flowing into the air instead of the ground, snow in midsummer, followed by three years of drought. The latter has all but destroyed the town, and Dou Yi swears it will only break if the truth is uncovered.
The programme notes cite the confused image of modern China the West has, on l the one hand fiercely modern and a dominant economic force, on the other a land of ancient traditions, religions and superstitions that even Mao's efforts couldn't quash. Cowhig and director Justin Audibert have done a stellar job of putting both of those worlds on stage together and creating a coherent new whole. It's probably best typified by the way Lily Arnold's busy neon designs and Ruth Chan's music put traditional images and sounds into an aggressively modern context.
The influences from the outside world aren't just Western - Dou Yi mixes a traditional sad Chinese ghost with frightening touches of the more vengeful Japanese type. Only at one point did the mix of styles wobble for me: A couple of second-act twists about the characters having a number of hidden connections are somehow inevitable in an 800-year-old fable, but feel a bit soapy in a modern setting.
But that was the only point in the story where I was any less than 100% sucked into the action, and most of the clashing of centuries is inspired: The ghost affecting the weather as punishment for past wrongs is a clear metaphor for climate change, while her search for her lost heart leads us to a black market in human organs - in fact it turns out Rocket got her heart, his need for a transplant having set off a number of the story's events. (OK, I can also complain about the fact that, if you've got a character played by Andrew Leung who needs a heart checkup at one point, not using that as an excuse to get his shirt off is baffling*.)
Look, even he's sad at the missed opportunity
But there's something about the story's twists and the audacity of the way it's told that's utterly engrossing. Audibert throws a lot of angry, pulsing energy into the story but there's also a humour and real human energy in there - Andrew Koji and Jonathan Raggett both have some fun moments as wannabe romeos, while Ryan and Sarah Lam get an intense scene near the end as the hidden story finally unfolds. In the end I can try to analyse why this worked so well for me but it just comes down to the fact that something in its brash telling of a delicate tale hooked me from the start. The RSC rarely transfers Swan shows to London so I wouldn't expect it to have a further life; but if I'm wrong or Stratford-upon-Avon is handy for you, this one's an enthusiastic recommendation from me.
Snow in Midsummer by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, based on The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth by Guan Hanqing is booking until the 25th of March at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Ikin Yum.
*also SPOILER ALERT but let's hope Leung doesn't end up too trapped in the Highly Specific Typecasting of "idealised dead gay boyfriend." I'd be fine with "idealised gay boyfriend who is alive" mind, then he can continue gaying it up for the whole play/film.