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."

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