You get a real sense that something is haunting these charactersXinyue Ma with permission for Varsity

Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm is often compared to the plays of Ibsen or Chekhov, or a Greek tragedy, earning him the title of the ‘Chinese Shakespeare’. As the intense plot follows the unravelling of a family due to betrayal, societal expectations, and desire, it’s not hard to see why. However, I applaud this production for offering a distinctly modern Chinese interpretation, taking it out of the realm of the Western canon and into something unmistakably new.

There’s something striking about the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments and the steady fall of rain in the ADC auditorium. I was transported to my summers in China, listening to my grandma’s CDs as summer storms raged outside. It is in these details that this production shines. Gone is the usual version of China in the eyes of the West, all flashy gold and red; in its place is a refreshingly poetic expression of China – soft, elegant, haunted.

“Everything melts together to create a cycle of fate and tragedy”

This is a testament to the work of Jensen Koh, Priya Sharma, and the Cambridge University Chinese Orchestra Society (CUCOS), who have created this immersive soundscape. Likewise, the lighting (by Tungsten Tang and Shiyun Liang) is cleverly plotted. The gauze shifts from translucent and glowing to blank and white. Flashes of light evoke images of lightning and memory. Director Vincy Wu’s vision is clear. Live video projections (what a feat!) contrast with ancient instrumentals to create a timeless production where the present watches the past, the past watches the present, and everything melts together to create a cycle of fate and tragedy.

You get a real sense that something is haunting these characters. China is an ancient country; our heritage is one obsessed with history and our familial legacy. Wu stages this feeling through silhouettes – a powerful image where the weight of the past looms in the shadows. But the play is not exclusively for those who have spent too much time thinking about how they’re disappointing their Chinese ancestors – we all have our ghosts (and goodness knows Britain has a past to be haunted by). The reminders of the natural world via the water and rain motifs, the strip of dirt, and the sleek minimalism of the set (by Yijing Chen) all contribute to expanding the play beyond China and the walls of the Zhou household.

Unfortunately, the performances did not always match the poignant design of the show. It’s disappointing when the most memorable parts of the play are the scenes without dialogue. Some choices, such as having the actors deliver their lines out to the audience, instead of each other, are puzzling. The dialogue felt like it was being told instead of truly acted. Lines were frequently mumbled or rushed through, and the pace of the play lags with this awkward delivery despite the scandalous plot. Xuefei He is youthful and stubborn as Sifeng, but I kept wishing for more. Sifeng is a complex role (a young girl burdened with issues of class, desire, and patriarchy), but when He delivered line after line in the same plaintive cadence, I struggled to truly understand her character.

“The performances did not always match the poignant design of the show”

The actors have potential. Some of the characterisation is thoughtful and distinctive. Qi Liu’s square-shouldered Dahai is charmingly idealistic and straightforward. A starry-eyed Zhou Chong (Rachel Guo), delivers a touching monologue in the second act. I was particularly impressed by Erin Tan as Lu Shiping and Queena Peng as Fanyi. Both are mistreated at the hands of Puyuan, a strict, emotionless businessman played by Chris Lau, yet their responses to a harshly patriarchal society manifest in markedly different ways. Fanyi slinks around the stage (in a gorgeous black dress), and pouts with barely restrained anger; Shiping arrives in a sack-like garment and embraces her daughter. The nuances with which Tan and Peng play these two matriarchs make them mesmerising to watch: Tan delivers an exceptional portrayal of maternal sacrifice and guilt, navigating tragedy with empathy and care.


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If Wu is to take this show further, I would love to see it in Chinese. There’s a musicality to the language that struck me when characters’ names were cried in this production. While I appreciate that this would have made a very different show, I can’t get Sifeng’s cry of ‘Ping’ when Fanyi confronts them, or Fanyi yelling for Puyuan in the confrontation scene near the end, out of my head.

A brief perusal of the programme reveals that this is the Cambridge theatre debut of many in the company. That’s special. We see the same people onstage all the time. We even see the same audiences. Not this week. There was something remarkable about sitting down in the ADC and hearing Chinese spoken so easily by the audience members around me. We need more shows like this – unapologetic in its heritage, its references, and its innovation.