Review: Thunderstorm, London Coliseum

Thunderstorm’s busy opening night at the London Coliseum marked the opening of The Shanghai Season. Shanghai Opera’s Thunderstorm was developed as an opera from the play of the same name by Cao Yu and the score developed by the acclaimed Mo Fan. It is one of Yu’s his best known works and consequently perhaps one of the pieces of theatre best known outside of China. Stylistically, the opera and the original play bear the influence of the Western theatrical tradition on Cao Yu’s work and as a tragedy the influences of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy are strongly felt. Though it is billed as a modern opera, these traditional elements are drawn out so strongly that it doesn’t always feel like one, and it is the blending of so many influences which gives this production its feeling of inconsistency.

Set across one full day Thunderstorm tells of the rapid collapse of a wealthy household when young master Zhou Ping attempts to elope with the maid Sifeng, who is pregnant, before uncovering the horrendous truth that they are in fact brother and sister. Their attempts to elope have been hampered by the efforts of Ping’s stepmother, Fanyi (Xu Xiaoying), who wills him to stay as her own lover. The tragic fate of the lovers is accompanied by Fanyi’s descent into madness; she is no longer able to cope with Ping’s rejection and becomes truly convinced of her worthlessness.

Mo Fan’s lovely music was effectually accompanied by a stage design which emphasised the lightness and dark of the story. The brightly lit pastel costumes of the young lover, Sifeng, were framed by the stormy, churning sky at the centre of the story. Supernatural overtones in the story were brought out by an eerily hooded chorus who moved on and off the stage with the thunderstorm.

At the heart of the story is the love triangle between Fanyi and the young couple, who are entangled further by the relationship between Shiping (Sifeng’s mother) and Zhou Puyuan (Zhou Ping’s father), and by Zhou Ping’s brother Zhou Chong and his own unrequited love for Sifeng. But here the threads of the story become slacker. Chong’s character is not played as an effective comedic respite, and his love for Sifeng feels unembedded in the story. His presence distracts from the tragedy of the final moments and compromises its impact. The closing few scenes are not slick enough, which contributes to the sense that the show’s second half is significantly weaker than the first. It did, however, contain one of the show’s most beautiful pieces. Fanyi’s agonised recognition of her own obscurity was memorably staged – the orchestra fell away as she sang and evoked movingly her alienation and hopelessness.

It is a shame that such strong moments were equalled by some much weaker ones. That certain parts of the audience laughed when Sifeng announced her pregnancy summed up the problems this opera had in maintaining a coherent tone and managing the fine balance between tragedy and farce. Some of the decisions made in adapting Cao Yu’s play have created imbalances in the proportions of the characters which, while they do not compromise the story’s ability to keep the audience engaged overall, do distract us from the full impact of the horror at the heart of the story: incest. There is no doubt, however, that Thunderstorm is an unusual thing to see here and is worth catching. The unity between the music and the visual staging would recommend it enough as a satisfying opera to go and watch and beautiful moments scattered throughout the production are bonuses on top of that.

Thunderstorm played as part of The Shanghai season at the London Coliseum until August 14. The Shanghai season continues until August 21.