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  • Dec 20, 2014
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Successful 'Orphan' taps into Shakespearean vein of Chinese classic

The RSC overcomes ethnicity row and taps into a Shakespearean vein with its first production of a Chinese classic, writes Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 4:09pm

Since its opening in October the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain has had terrific reviews for The Orphan of Zhao, the first Chinese play that it has performed in its 51-year history.

"This is a stunning act of theatrical reclamation … and an extraordinary theatrical event," The Guardian newspaper said, while The Telegraph called it "gripping" and "the Chinese Hamlet".

However, the first nights of the production were overshadowed by controversy over the casting.

A Britain-based Chinese actor asked the perfectly reasonable question of why, in a cast of 17 actors, only three were ethnic Chinese. The question, as these things tend to do in days of social media, went viral.

The RSC's artistic director, Gregory Doran, was called a "racist", an experience he found upsetting and regrettable. "I thought 'I don't think you've got the right target to attack the RSC when we've just done an all-black Julius Caesar and a version of [Shakespeare's play] Much Ado About Nothing featuring only Indian actors … and are now doing a Chinese play'."

He explains that the 17 members of the cast were employed for a repertory season of three plays, including one set in Italy and the other in Russia. Casting was blind, in terms of ethnicity, and the idea was that the season would give opportunities to a whole range of actors, Doran says.

"The problem was that there were so many people who wanted to be part of this. The actor [who started off the complaint] had an audition, a recall and didn't get the job. It's a shame, but that's what happens."

Still, in the end, it hasn't been entirely bad. "What's resulted was something that I'd initiated anyway, which is a programme to look at what more opportunities there could be for actors of Asian origin," Doran says. "The way it was raised was regrettable, but I think in the end some good things can come out of it."

Which perhaps, ironically, is one way of summing up the story of The Orphan of Zhao itself.

It is an ancient tale, updated in the early 17th century, about an ambitious man who has the ear of a weak emperor. He murders every male in the rival Zhao family in all sorts of creative ways, but despite his best efforts, a baby boy survives.

The "orphan of Zhao" is brought up by two men: a doctor who sacrifices his own baby to protect the boy, and the murderer himself, who is looking for an heir, and thinks the child is the physician's son.

Which means that when the orphan of Zhao comes of age and learns of his destiny, he has to avenge his family by killing his adopted father - and yet out of all the bad comes some good, as hundreds of people are saved from a tyrant.

The decision to stage the play came from a challenge Doran set himself a few years ago. "I wanted to try to reconfigure our rather Anglo-centric, Elizabethan-centric understanding of Shakespeare's worldview and look at what was going on in the rest of the world during Shakespeare's lifetime."

He began with a new adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's Boris Godunov and a version of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, about the tension between church and science in 1610 Italy.

"But I was also looking at what was happening in China. Some plays I did know - The Peony Pavilion was from Shakespeare's lifetime - but when I read the Orphan of Zhao I was completely knocked out," Doran says.

"It seemed to have things that I recognised - a Shakespearean scope and epic quality - it just dealt with humanity in an extraordinary, complex way. It is a great Chinese classic but it's also a world classic and we should have access to it."

The first problem was in the translation.

"I found a version done quickly for Swedish radio in 1956 and that was about it. So I contacted a professor at Leeds University, called Ruru Li. Her mother was a Peking opera star and her father had been one of the founders of drama in China in the 1930s," says Doran.

Li gave the artistic director a good piece of advice: "She said that in China when we do Shakespeare we do it as it lands with us, and she said that I must do the same with The Orphan of Zhao; I must do it as it works for us."

This gave Doran the freedom he needed. Li found a version in Chinese done just before the Cultural Revolution "and it's fascinating how different it was".

In earlier productions, the mother of the orphan of Zhao commits suicide. But in the 1960s play he discovers she is still alive, meaning that she is there to support him when he has to exact his revenge.

"It was like Hermione in The Winter's Tale," says Doran, who later learned the change was made for a pragmatic reason. "The actress playing the princess didn't want to die in act one and they changed it so she could come back at the end … which I thought was rather magnificent," says Doran.

James Fenton also added his own original touches for the RSC version - writing a scene in which the doctor is confronted by the ghost of his dead child - a Hamlet scene in reverse.

"In China, there is a sense that your duty is to subsume your own feelings and stand up for the good of society and that personal cost is not the important factor, while in the West it is, which we wanted to reflect."

Last summer Doran, Li and the RSC designer visited China to research the production, including visiting the tomb of the Wanli emperor (the weak Ming dynasty ruler in the play who was alive in Shakespeare's time), which conveniently is the only one of the 13 Ming tombs to have been opened, giving unprecedented access to the artefacts of the era. While they were in China they came across evidence of at least four different productions: a film had just come out (The Sacrifice, directed by Chen Kaige); a cutting-edge theatre piece; a Peking opera production; and another Shanghai opera show.

Doran was particularly interested in how they each portrayed one particular character: the demon mastiff, a dog trained to kill the good patriarch of the Zhao dynasty, which he could see could make brilliant theatre.

"The Peking opera version was a bit disappointing because it was a man in a not very good dog suit. And I asked the director of the cutting-edge drama version about what he had done and he said - oh the dog isn't so relevant, I just had a man with a furry jacket on," Doran says.

"But when we visited the Wanli emperor's tomb we walked along a path called the spirit way guarded by pairs of mythical and exotic animals. One was the Xie Qi and it looks like a dog with a dragon's features and we learned that it had the power of sniffing out good and evil … and I thought: 'That is our demon mastiff'."

The RSC team sourced all the Xie Qi images they could find and used them to inspire a massive puppet mastiff, operated by three shadowy actors, which creates a monstrous killer dog that is genuinely frightening.

"We took Ruru Li's advice right the way through. We looked at what had been done before, and then we told the story our way."


The Orphan of Zhao , at the RSC Theatre in Stratford, ends in March


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This article is now closed to comments

This version of events concerning the casting of The Orphan of Zhao is dubious in the extreme. The question asked was not so much why there were only three East Asians in the cast but why the RSC had not seen fit to cast any East Asians in protagonist roles. British East Asians actors are too often prevented from participating in productions within the UK in a meaningful way despite their having been brought up and trained in the British tradition but when it comes to working professionally we are excluded or viewed as some kind of exotic other. So, it is galling that when a production is put on by a respected company like the RSC, representing both strands of our cultural heritage, and borrowing a great deal from both, that we are still not allowed to play anything rather than subservient roles. The RSC has led the way n the past and it would have been refreshing to see it take an enlightened view over this issue.
Anna Chen
This highly selective article does not reflect how many Chinese and other east Asian people feel about the RSC casting controversy, not to mention the rainbow of arts-lovers who recognise the unfairness and ill-judgement that mark this show.
"A Britain-based Chinese (sic!) actor asked the perfectly reasonable question of why, in a cast of 17 actors, only three were ethnic Chinese. The question, as these things tend to do in days of social media, went viral."
This implies that only one person asked this question and the response is dismissed as "viral". First dog, maid, ghost, babies, horses, invisible and now a virus. Thank you Ms Finlay for that.
There has been fierce debate regarding yellowface casting and the exclusion of east Asian faces and voices from the mainstream for decades. The actor, Daniel York, was only one of eleven signatories to the statement released by the British East Asian Artists regarding The Orphan of Zhao — the latest in a long line of productions featuring distorted depictions of the Chinese. The signatories included actors, academics, arts workers and myself.
You can find the statement here:
Here's one amusing example — from America — which exemplifies the dismay and disdain felt by so many
Greg Doran’s version of events is indeed troubling. He neglects to mention that many of the critics thought the campaign was justified and most notably Andrew Dickson pointed out on BBC Radio 4 Front Row that ‘the production suffers from the lack of East Asians in leading roles’ whilst the Independent on Sunday described it as ‘anachronistic’. I would also question Mr Doran’s good piece of advice from Ruru Li: "She said that in China when we do Shakespeare we do it as it lands with us, and she said that I must do the same with The Orphan of Zhao; I must do it as it works for us." So is he admitting that his vision of the play precludes East Asian actors in leading roles?
He pins the problem down to ‘so many people wanting to be in it’. This is a little unfair. The campaign drew in people from all walks of life in more than three continents. Yes a community of East Asian actors who don’t get a look-in for classical plays or plays period, do want to be a part of it. Is that such a crime? Was he seriously expecting the East Asian acting community who have endured a reputation for being ‘silent’ and ‘invisible’ for so long to remain so when it comes to a classic that’s part of their heritage to be excluded when it comes to performing it?
On a positive note, he points out ‘something good has come out of it’. The proof is indeed in the pudding and I shall look forward to seeing Mr Doran’s commitment to put more East Asian actors on stage at the RSC.
Well, as I was the actor who supposedly initiated the protests (though I wouldn’t say that’s quite what happened) I guess I should answer some of Greg Doran’s points.
He says I “auditioned, was recalled and didn’t get the part, it’s a shame but that’s what happens” is one way of putting but it does generally seem to happen rather a lot to the mixed race Chinese guy. I should point out that in many ways I’m thrilled to have got that far. I came from a position of not having acted on stage in Britain for five years. To be recalled and considered for fairly big parts is something of an achievement and I’m actually rather proud of myself but the chronic lack of opportunities for actors from my background simply has to be addressed. I liked Greg when I met him. He seemed kind and considerate as well as thoughtful. In the aftermath of a controversy however he does seem to like implying that this is all down to some spurious notion of “sour grapes”. Well, a) maybe he would think Rosa Parks was “sour” for wanting a seat and b) if he’d have cast East Asians in leading roles I would have had proper sour grapes and no leg to stand on, wouldn’t I?
Cont'd Greg also laments the fact that all this was due to “so many people” wanting to be a part of it. Is he really attributing the welt of protests that poured in from across the globe from a traditionally passive minority group from all walks of life to “disgruntled actors”? I’m afraid this rather beggars belief. He’s perfectly at liberty to disagree but he does need to acknowledge that a significant number of people find his casting choices deeply problematic.
Cont'd again- Greg then goes on to say that what’s resulted is something he’d “initiated anyway” i.e. a “programme to look at what more opportunities there could be for actors of Asian origin”. Is he trying to claim credit for the fact that the Arts Council, Equity, Casting Directors Guild and Theatrical Manager’s Association have come together to organise an event where these issues can be discussed and addressed? This is extraordinary I have to say. Really, if he wanted to “look at more opportunities for actors of Asian origin” he could try, you know, giving them the job when the play is about them as opposed to wanting to “give opportunities to a whole range of actors” two thirds of whom happen to be white of course. To decry the way this was raised as “regrettable” is more than a little disingenuous I’m afraid to say. At the beginning myself and the Equity Diversity Officer both wrote letters to Greg Doran personally. For whatever reason it took some two months for him to reply. Had this been less “public” (thereby causing himself and the RSC less discomfort) the response would never have been so resounding. Nevertheless I’m glad he sees “good things” coming from this and I look forward to seeing him at the Young Vic Open Space event on February 11th where these issues can be discussed.
Con'd again-Greg is understandably upset at being called a “racist” but I have to say that of the 800 odd comments on the RSC Facebook page there can’t be more than 5 that have called him that and for him to make this an issue does I’m afraid rather smack of a privileged white middle class man crying wolf (ironic in that he objects to us complaining). Greg’s no racist. The RSC did indeed do an all black Julius Caesar and an all Indian Much Ado About Nothing and it’s my understanding they took great pains to cast these two productions. This does then rather beg the question as to why in that case East Asians are side lined in the manner they have been?
I’ll finish by positing the same question which I requested BBC Front Row’s Kirsty Lang to put to him and to which he’s yet to give a satisfactory answer. If he were producing an African play set in Africa with black African characters would he cast two thirds of it with Caucasian actors and describe this as “diverse”?


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