Alongside their Rome season, the RSC have launched a Chinese Classics Translation Project, in order to bring classical Chinese stories to a modern UK audience. Kicking off their project, is Snow in Midsummer, a modern re-imagining of one of the most famous Classical Chinese dramas.
The RSC are interested in staging stories written and performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and therefore have invited contemporary playwrights to respond to these tales. I spoke to Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, the writer of Snow in Midsummer about her adaptation of the original play.
When asking what drew her to the original play, she said: “I loved the idea of a female revenge ghost story. In the original, a woman is executed for a crime she didn’t commit and her angry ghost causes a drought. I was drawn to the idea of a wronged woman going on a quest to clear her name.”
Frances chose to set her adaptation in contemporary China, she told me: In the past fifty years in China, the bodies of executed prisoners have often been harvested for their organs, which find their way into the living bodies of wealthy people all over the world.” In her adaptation, the ghost of the woman who was executed cannot be buried – not only because she was framed for murder, but because there is literally nothing to bury. “Her organs, her skin, her bones, her tissue – it’s all missing. It has all been sold. So during the play, part of her quest is to reclaim a piece of her body from a living person, so that she can be buried and move into the next life,” Frances explained.
After living in East Asia for ten years during her youth, Frances is familiar with the world of Chinese Buddhism, Taoist beliefs and the issues facing modern China, which made the research into the context of her play a little easier. “I did do quite a bit of research into the organ industry,” Frances explained. “And the controversial Body Worlds exhibitions, where plastinated human corpses, some of which were executed Chinese prisoners, were put on display in museum-like settings for purposes of education and entertainment.”
Pulling on the style of the films she most admires, Frances has taken inspiration from the ghost films she loves, such as The Ring and The Sixth Sense. “I chose to use a suspense / mystery story structure,” she said. Which is executed through director Justin Audibert’s innovative ideas and staging.
Snow in Midsummer brings relevant issues to the forefront through theatre, Frances explained: “Poor rural women are still marginalised in every part of the world. In rural China, the suicide rate for women is 3-4 higher than it is for men. Yet global capitalism and our insatiable hunger for more goods at a lower price is fuelled by poor rural people like Dou Yi, the protagonist of Snow in Midsummer.” Telling the story of a poor woman whose life is taken by the state, and whose body is sold for profit, is still entirely apt and important. “Dou Yi’s quest, even in death, to clear her name and make sure justice is served is a remarkable example of the tenacity of the human spirit, to struggle in the face of the most brutal, crushing obstacles,” Frances explained.
This is the first of many Chinese stories to be told on the RSC’s stage, and the importance of bringing these stories to a UK audience is immense. “Human society is only ever as good as it’s capacity to imagine and dream itself forward into new and better ways of living and engaging with each other,” Frances explained. ” We need ancient stories to guide us in the right direction, so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. To ignore China’s massive contributions to storytelling, and the development of the creative mind, would be ignorant and foolish.”
Currently on at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Snow in Midsummer plays until the 25th of March.