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Making heavy weather of an ancient tale

Snow in Midsummer, The Swan, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford, until March 25. A ‘contemporary re-imagining’ of a thirteenth century play about a wrongly-executed woman whose dying prophesies come true and prove her innocence sounds intriguing. There are indeed many good points to Snow in Midsummer, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s version of The Injustice Done to Dou E, by Guan Hanqing. There are also too many jarring notes. The story concerns the young widow, who remains faithful to her mother in law despite being wrongly accused of murder. She declares that as she is executed her blood will fly up and stain the silk behind her, snow will fall in midsummer and there will be drought. The special effects department excels with all of these. But there are new elements, (in a China which still carries out executions), of class, gender roles, climate change caused by industrialisation, gay marriage, the clash between the new world and old traditions, and body organs for sale. That’s quite a lot to fit in, and sometimes it’s done heavy handedly. There are also quite a few crude references and unsubtle bits of dialogue which don’t add anything. However there is much that is good. The visuals are excellent. In modern-day China we are treated to neon flashing lights, techno music and a multi-level stage, as a businesswoman comes to New Harmony to buy the factories. Her adopted daughter (played by three girls, on press night the excellent Emily Dao) is soon communicating with the ghost of Dou E (Katie Leung) and the ghostly scenes are all stunning. One gory one is memorable. Colin Ryan and Andrew Leung as Handsome and Rocket, modern entrepreneurs who think they can buy anything, are also excellent in their roles. The music is impressive and as the play looks good so it’s a shame there are flaws which spoil it.

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