It’s a feminist take on a Chinese classic and it tackles issues of diversity in the theatre world. Oh, and it’s also a comedy.
Red Dragonfly Productions’ Diao Chan: The Rise of the Courtesan is about as British as a Chinese play can get, and that’s exactly the point. Britain’s most prolific East Asian theatre company, Red Dragonfly aims to tell Chinese stories in a way that’s familiar to European audiences.
“To be honest, I can’t understand the structure of Chinese storytelling and I think most Western audiences would agree, but that means we’re missing out on a lot of interesting plays and British-Asian actors are finding it harder to get work,” says Ross Ericson, the English playwright who adapted Diao Chan – a play originally inspired by historical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. “So I gave it a very clear three-act structure and made some of the characters more modern.”
He’s talking about feisty protagonist Diao Chan, a courtesan who manipulates tyrannical warlord Dong Zhuo and his fearsome warrior, Lu Bu, and swiftly rises into the noble classes.
“I based Diao Chan on women I know: strong, independent people,” says Ericson. “I think too many female characters still play a passive role in storylines.”
Hong Kong-born Michelle Yim, the artistic director of the play, says this feminist interpretation was important to her.
“While women are protagonists in traditional Chinese plays, they are often meek, dutiful people,” says Yim, who followed her parents from Ho Man Tin to Britain in 1999. “We wanted to create someone witty and clever.” Because, above all, Diao Chan is comedy.
“Everyone should come and see it,” says Ericson. “But not because of the important stuff. It’s just a great evening’s entertainment with some big laughs. And it’s such a relief to see British East Asians being funny rather than all serious about life as an immigrant.”
Diao Chan: The Rise of the Courtesan has been touring Britain and will run in London from May 9 to 28, at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street.