Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan

“Why do you silence me?”

A break from the old routine for the RSC here, with a play from the 13th century. Not only that, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Snow in Midsummer is an adaptation of Yuan dynasty drama The Injustice Done to Dou E by Guan Hanqing, marking a key milestone in the venerable institution’s avowed change of policy after the The Orphan of Zhao debacle in 2012. Transplanting the narrative into contemporary China, Cowhig and director Justin Audibert smash the ancient and the modern together to startling effect.

Dou Yi (Katie Leung) was a young widow executed for murder in the industrial town of New Harmony, proclaiming her innocence all the while and cursing the community in her final moments. The play starts properly three years later with her curse having come to pass, drought has devastated the area and local factories are on the brink of closure, Dou Yi’s spirit restlessly haunting them all, determinedly awaiting exoneration. A newly arrived businesswoman (Wendy Kweh) scents a takeover but as her young daughter’s dreams take a disturbing turn, she can’t help but get sucked into this world. Continue reading “Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan”

Review: Unusual Unions, Royal Court

There’s something special about being allowed to take part in something unique and though Unusual Unions actually took place twice on the same day, it still counts as a one off in my book. Part of the Royal Court’s convention-busting The Big Idea stream of work, this was a collection of 5 short plays all responding to the ideas raised by Abi Morgan in her main house show The Mistress Contract, taking place in unexpected nooks and crannies of the theatre in wonderfully small groups.

From dressing rooms to stairwells, the space under the stage to meeting rooms with a view, it was a brilliant way of exploring a building which isn’t normally so open (Wilton’s Music Hall’s promenade version of Edmund fulfilled a similar purpose). And even if the subject matter seemed to veer off what one might have expected, given the sexual nature of Morgan’s play, it was still compelling stuff looking at the ways in which we connect (or not) with those around us.  Continue reading “Review: Unusual Unions, Royal Court”

Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed

“A boy is a child, a girl is a thing”

Given that around about this time last year, the RSC was copping a lot of flak for casting just three East Asian actors in a production of The Orphan of Zhao, it feels something of a shame that more of a noise isn’t being made about the greater opportunities that this year has seen, in the capital at least. Currently in London, you can see Chimerica and The Fu-Manchu Complex, a second David Henry Hwang production – Golden Child – has just closed after Yellow Face earlier this year and the Hampstead had the evocative #aiww. Along with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness now at the National Theatre’s Shed, could this be a sign of the changing tide, of greater visibility in our cultural lives as theatres’ reluctance to programme Eastern influences ebbs away? Who knows, I am far from qualified to tell, but it has made for a fascinating enrichening of my theatregoing this year (and by extension, my short-film viewing).

Cowhig’s play feels like a good companion piece to Lucy Kirkwood’s writing, turning the gaze firmly onto contemporary Chinese society and how it deals with being the fuel for the motor of exceptional economic growth. Its protagonist is Katie Leung’s Sunny, dumped in a bucket of pigswill at birth for not being a boy but surviving and once grown to a young adult, she joins the exodus from the countryside in pursuit of the urban dream. But once she arrives, it is emerges as more of a nightmare and Cowhig pulls no punches as she reveals the seedy underside to this version of capitalism – the sheer exploitation of the rural migrants, the appalling working conditions, the high rate of suicide, the indoctrination of the mantra of self-help that keeps an endless flow of willing bodies knocking at the door. Continue reading “Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed”

Review: Lidless, Trafalgar Studios 2

“I learned to love what they were doing to me”


Compellingly performed by a five strong cast, Lidless transfers to the Trafalgar Studios 2 after a well-received run in Edinburgh last year. It is a new play by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig examining the legacy of the Guantánamo Bay interrogations and whether one really can move on from the past. Swept up in the extreme atmosphere, US Army interrogator Alice is one of the most effective workers they have, especially when it comes to a particular detainee Bashir. She takes part in a PTSD drug trial which wipes her memory of all she has been complicit in but fifteen years later, as we see she has started a new life as a florist in Texas with her husband and teenage daughter, Bashir who has not forgotten anything that happened, re-emerges with a pressing demand. His appearance shatters the fragile peace in this family as the ramifications of what Alice has repressed reverberate terribly throughout her family.


It is well acted throughout: Penny Layden’s unquestioning soldier relishes the power thrust into her hands by the military and though she has reinvented herself, Layden suggests that the violence in her is never far from the surface; Greer Dale-Foulkes brings an edgy inquisitiveness as a child in a world full of adults obscuring the truth from her and Antony Bunsee is graceful as the dignified but determined victim, relentlessly pursuing what he sees as his due.


But for a work that won the Yale Drama Series Award for Playwriting in 2009, I was a bit disappointed in the play itself. There’s a anti-US tone which is reflected in the uneasy balance between the two-dimensional US villain versus the more fully-rounded, almost saint-like persecuted victim, but the main problem comes in the mix of the personal and political here as the issues of justified torture in the war against terror are left behind as Lidless becomes a family drama longing for the depths of Greek tragedy and ending up closer to melodramatic, contrived soap opera.

The design by takis reconfigures the Trafalgar Studios 2 in the round for the first time, which isn’t quite the unqualified success one would have hoped. The arresting format that was devised for The Early Bird with its clear Perspex cube in the middle of the Finborough was magnificently effective but here, the illuminated frame that marks the space in the centre of the Trafalgar 2 feels a little superfluous. The bright lighting keeps much of the audience in view but without the sense of complicitness in the proceedings which might have made that work and the direction doesn’t play well in the round, many scenes were fairly static and blocked as if playing in traverse (I would recommend avoiding sitting at either end of the studio, if you can).

At only 75 minutes, Lidless doesn’t outstay its welcome, but with its lack of balance in the portrayal of its main characters, its refusal to entertain the shades of grey inbetween and resorting to coincidence too many times, it ends up stretching credibility rather than examining the questions that it initially poses. This ultimately made it feel like a bit of a missed opportunity, I imagine it will just be preaching to the converted here rather than actually changing anyone’s mind.

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 2 April
Note: some bad language and flashing light effects