To prepare myself to direct Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s adaptation of Snow in Midsummer, I took a research trip to China, alongside my Designer Lily Arnold, and Nic Wass and Bonnie Chan, who work in the literary department.
We went to three places: we flew into Beijing and spent a couple of days there, travelled to Huai'an where the story was originally set, and then finished off in Shanghai. One of the most incredible parts of the trip was our visit to Huai'an where Guan Hanqing wrote and based Snow in Midsummer. We visited a fascinating museum all about Chinese opera, and we also had a tour of the region where we learnt about how Huai'an became a commercial centre on a confluence of rivers halfway down the Grand Canal.
What was interesting about Shanghai was the rapid urbanisation. Frances’s adaptation of Snow in Midsummer has a focus on how tradition and spiritualism work alongside this – sort of – modern, free turbo capitalist city. For that reason, it felt really important to get to the heart of urban life in China today.
Neither I nor my designer, Lily Arnold, had ever been to China before, so, the trip was invaluable. One of the things we saw, which will go directly into the show, was the sheer number of electrical wires that are display in the street. It sounds like a strange thing to say, but everywhere you went there was this incredible jumble of cables. As the play features a 21st century ghost, we felt there was an interesting concept to explore, perhaps with the ghost communicating through a wire or carrying across power lines.
Really direct aspects of the trip ended up going into the design. Snow in Midsummer is about a curse that results in a drought, but Huai'an is famous for its abundance of water. So, we were instantly taken with how we could show the district with and without water. The fabricated setting of the play will be green, verdant and full of water – before the drought drains it. We’re really interested in these tiny details, so there are bars and factories which come in. But it’s not a naturalistic play we’re making. It’s a kind of fantastical play, almost like a horror. It’s important to not get bogged down in the absolute minutiae of social realism, but focus on the flavour of the city to inform the world about the play that Frances has written.
By Justin Audibert, Director of Snow in Midsummer