A World Elsewhere: The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC Review Part 1

Jake Fairbrother as Cheng Bo and Philip Whitchurch as Wei Jiang in The Orphan of Zhao.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade. (c)

Jake Fairbrother (Cheng Bo) and Philip Whitchurch (Wei Jiang)  The Orphan of Zhao RSC. Photo by Kwame Lestrade (c)

The Orphan of Zhao adapted from the Chinese by James Fenton and directed by Gregory Doran, The Swan Theatre, RSC, Stratford-on-Avon, 3rd January 2013.

The Asian Performing Arts Forum opened their roundtable discussion on Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao with the following quotation from Rustom Bharucha:

“Unavoidably, the production raises the question of ethics, not just the ethics of representation, which concerns the decontextualisation of an epic from its history and culture, but the ethics of interacting with people … in the process of creating the work itself. … It is at the level of interactions that the human dimensions of interculturalism are, at once, most potent and problematic.”   Theatre and the WorldPerformance and the Politics of Culture ( 1993) p.84.

The quotation in context refers to Peter Brook’s Mahabharata but can, I think, be usefully applied to the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao.  Interculturalism is a sticky issue, caught somewhere between liberal diversity politics and post-colonial reclamation of identities and narratives, as seen in the polarised responses to Brook’s and, more recently, Gregory Doran’s forays into appropriating non-western world literature for western consumption. Minority groups rightly feel aggrieved at under-representation or misrepresentation.  The companies accused of insensitivity in casting when they have produced a previously unperformed ‘non-western’ play on a mainstream western stage may well feel that they are unfairly singled out: identifying themselves as liberal and open to diversity, they wonder how they have ended up labelled as the neo-imperialists?

I’m going to confess that I was entertained and frustrated by this production in equal measures, and I hope that I can write of it here with some generosity, despite my very serious reservations…  Thus, for my response to The Orphan of Zhao I propose to take as my starting place the interactions that are the ‘human’ dimension of intercultural performance through all that was ‘most potent’ and ‘most problematic’ for me in Doran’s production at the Swan Theatre.

Part 1: The Orphan of Zhao: All That Is Potent 

Jake Fairbrother rehearses as the Orphan of Zhao. (c) Kwame Lestrade

Jake Fairbrother rehearses as the Orphan of Zhao. (c) Kwame Lestrade

The Shakespeare connection for this play in the RSC’s A World Elsewhere season is the claim that it is the ‘Chinese Hamlet’.  After all, anything ‘foreign’, it seems, must be made comprehensible through something we are familiar with already, even though that comparison may distort it completely.  This is a paradox that Shakespeare plays with in Antony and Cleopatra.  When Antony returns to Rome from the ‘exotic’ East, his drinking buddy and fellow triumvirate, Lepidus, asks him what a crocodile looks like. His answer, although true, is useless as a meaningful description:  ‘It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad/ as it hath breadth: it is just so high as it is,/ and moves with its own organs’ (Act 2, Scene 7) However, although The Orphan of Zhao is not actually very like Shakespeare’s tragedy, other than its central protagonist needing to avenge his father’s murder by an uncle-figure, it does bare some parallels with the ‘original’ Hamlet story from Saxo Grammaticus’ Deeds of the Danes, in which a very young Viking prince, Amleth, must live in his fratricidal uncle’s household until he reaches manhood.  At this point, as a dutiful orphaned son, Amleth kills him. Likewise, the Zhao Orphan, whose father is a court minister, and whose mother is the Emperor’s daughter, must also grow up to enact his revenge when his father and his clan are wiped out by a jealous rival minister, Tu’an Gu.  In both the tale of Viking Blood Revenge and the musical drama of Chinese filial piety, the call to vengeance is never questioned.  The tension lies in whether or not the boys will manage to survive into adulthood to fulfil their duty. Coincidentally, the first extant version of Orphan, by the Yuan dynasty’s Ji Junxiang (紀君祥), was written at about the same time as Deeds.

James Fenton’s adaptation succeeded in making a potentially confusing tale of corruption at court, babies switched at birth, the slaughter of infants, a mad woman locked away in a hidden palace, and divided filial loyalties, flow with a simple clarity.  I didn’t notice that much poetry in the translation, but I never lost track of the plot or themes, and the songs were simple yet compelling.  One of the central conceits is that the family doctor switches his own baby son to protect the prince. To prevent the Herod-like murder of all boy-children under the age of two, he must reveal the whereabouts of this supposed Orphan of Zhao. The doctor’s baby then has his little neck broken on stage in front of his father by the murderous Tu’an Gu, who believes it to be the orphan of Zhao.  Tu’an Gu, as a reward for [the doctor’s] ‘good’ deed, decides to adopt his son, unaware that he is the orphan’ (Programme, 2012: 22).

The Swan Theatre is my favourite space at the RSC, because it is so small that the action is close and clear even when I am in the ‘cheap’ front-row second gallery seats (still very pricey at £22 for non-concessions). The Orphan of Zhao worked well in that relatively intimate thrust-stage environment, as the actors happily hammed up ‘speaking to the audience’ and ‘introducing their roles’, presumably in reference to various Chinese opera traditions.

Nia Gwynne as Dr Cheng Ying's Wife and Graham Turner as Doctor Cheng Ying in The Orphan of Zhao.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Nia Gwynne (Dr Cheng Ying’s Wife) and Graham Turner (Doctor Cheng Ying) The Orphan of Zhao RSC Photo by Kwame Lestrade (c)

Yet these were fine performances.  This was the only production in the World Elsewhere trilogy to cast two ethnic minority actors in protagonist roles, the hero and the villain, proving that a major British classical theatre company risks no threat to their artistic reputation by foregrounding talent from a broader spectrum than is the norm. Joe Dixon, who I had previously seen at the RSC as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, was a deliciously roguish Tu’an Gu.  As for Jake Fairbrother as the grown-up orphan, Cheng Bo, I couldn’t help but think that he had been cast in part, at least, because of his uncanny resemblance to a young Yul Brynner… Like my daughter, labelled ‘ethnically ambiguous’, the director clearly felt that Jake, too, had a face that could represent anywhere.  Cheng Bo’s childlike energy and innocence was delightful and all too fragile in the face of his task when, suddenly discovering his true identity as he reached adulthood, he found himself bound to execute the man he had loved as a father.  This was one of the productions strengths: it did not shy away from the ambivalences of the plot.  Nia Gwynne was simply heartbreaking as the doctor’s wife, lamenting the sacrifice of her precious child because of some supposed ‘greater good’ before falling into despair and disappearing.  This scene was made even more potent because, as the fate of the two babies was debated by the doctor and his wife, the baby dolls were ‘voiced’ by adult actors kneeling on either side of the stage.  Chris Lew Kum Hoi, who would later return as the ghost of the doctor’s son was one of them, his cooing and gurgling in stark contrast to the adult body that would be denied him.  Unfortunately, the implications of this scene were not fully realised as instead of having Fairbrother produce the sounds of his infant self, this was voiced by another actor.

Graham Turner as Dr Cheng Ying and Chris Lew Kum Hoi as the Ghost of the Son in The Orphan of Zhao.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Graham Turner (Dr Cheng Ying) and Chris Lew Kum Hoi (the Ghost of the Son)  The Orphan of Zhao RSC. Photo by Kwame Lestrade (c)

Lots of old white men played old Chinese Mandarins, but with sagacity and grace.  Susan Momoko Hingley, an Anglo-Japanese actor, did a sprightly turn as the soon-to-be decapitated maid, and Chris Lew Kum Hoi stunned us all as he returned as the ghost of the doctor’s son in the final five minutes.  In a pair of scenes that echoed each other, the Orphan and the ghost confronted the men they saw as their fathers.  Cheng Bo offered Tu’an Gu the same option of ‘suicide’ as Tu’an Gu had offered his real father.  Unable to take his own life, Tu’an Gu begged his adopted son to kill him if he had ever loved him. Thus this ‘patricide’ became, not simply a moment of revenge, but also a brief moment of possible forgiveness.  In contrast, the old doctor, confronted by the son he had sacrificed in a graveyard, found he must kill himself to appease the child he had abandoned.

It was a beautiful production, too.  Whenever somebody died, blood-red petals fell from the rafters.  A latticed moongate and red silk lanterns evoked Old China throughout: the Swan Theatre had transformed overnight from pre-Revolutionary Russia (Boris Godunov) to a pretty good impression of The Lao She Teahouse in Beijing. In traditional Chinese theatre, scenery is minimal and non-representative. The RSC had done some research: a week in China for the director and designer, plus artistic advice and workshops on Chinese stage conventions ‘back home’ led by Leeds University academic and director, Dr. Li Ruru, author of Shashibiya: Staging Shakespeare on the Chinese Stage and The Soul of Beijing Opera. Her introduction in the programme to the evolution of The Orphan of Zhao’s stage history, both in the East and in the West, is illuminating. Tian Yuan Tan of SOAS also adds credibility with his article on dysfunctional dynasties.  Full colour spreads of Terracotta Warriors, Spirit Ways, Pagodas and Dragons all make clear that we should not expect a hybrid or an anglicised production: this is the RSC introducing the British public to Chinese Theatre.  The delicate watercolour designs by Niki Turner shimmered into life in a production awash with coloured silks and shining spears.  Authenticity seemed to be the order of the day, from the Emperor’s imperial yellow robes and pointy black beard, to a wise old Mandarin physically prostrating himself in front of the spoilt monarch (who had been practising his archery skills on his subjects for fun) as he desperately tried to make him see reason.

Ay, there’s the rub. With so much emphasis in getting the set, the costumes and even (some) of the movements to be ‘Chinese’, wasn’t there something missing? Ah yes…

Part 2: The Orphan of Zhao: All That Is Problematic Posting shortly

Related posts: Madam Miaow Makes Mincemeat of RSC over Non-Chinese-Casting

The Yellowface Debate Continues: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable

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Eastern European Hamlets Panel Discussion

My current research is on Hamlet in late-communist and post-communist society, so it’s jolly good of my friend Aneta Mancewitz to co-ordinate a panel discussion especially for me! (So, okay, not really just for me…)

Eastern European Hamlets

Wednesday 30th January 2013

Venue:  New Studio, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Time:  17.30-19.30

Click on the link above for more details.

It will be wonderful to meet up again with Dr. Nicoleta Cinpoes, who organised the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Craiova in 2009 where I first met many of these people.  As people gave their papers in that industrial Romanian city, which also hosts a major international Shakespeare festival every two years (and we act like the World Shakespeare Festival was a new idea!), there were definite recurring themes – of which Hamlet and the legacy of 1989 in post-communist spaces was particularly potent.

(C) Meno Fortas

(C) Meno Fortas

This panel will explore Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian and Yugoslav Hamlets.

The importance of Eastern European reconfigurings of Hamlet was illustrated during the Globe to Globe Festival when Shakespeare’s most famous play was performed, not by the Brits, but by the Lithuanians (left).  My blog review of Nekrosius’ Hamlet can be read here. My performance review of a Polish Hamlet directed by Monika Pęcikiewicz is forthcoming in the journal Shakespeare and is published online already.  If you would like a free copy please contact me and I will send you the link.  It originally started life as a couple of Shakespeare Travels blogposts, of course.

Other speakers will include the ever eloquent Prof. Dr. Boika Sokolova,  Dr. Sonia Massai, and Aneta  herself, among others.

The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable and comments on Western Opera casting practices

Roundtable discussion: Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao. Friday 23rd November, 3-5pm, Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London.
Speakers: Dr. Broderick Chow, Brunel University, Dr. Amanda Rogers, Swansea University, Dr. Ashley Thorpe, University of Reading (chair), Daniel York, Actor, writer, director and Vice Chair of Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee.*
(c) RSC

(c) RSC

Following on from my Orphan of Zhao post on ‘yellowface’ and colourblind casting, I attended the above roundtable last November hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum.  But, well, what with teaching, marking, looking after my young family, article writing, PhD and Christmas, I still haven’t written up my notes from it.  So, luckily for me, panellist Dr Amanda Rogers (University of Swansea) has done a sterling job at addressing the issues in a series of posts on her blog Theatrical Geographies, and Anna Chen/MadamMiaow recorded the whole event and put it on Youtube.  Thanking them both, I’m shamelessly reblogging! Click the link here:

Orphan of Zhao update and roundtable.

My own review of the production, and the aspects I found both most potent (there was much that was potent and beautiful) and most problematic (there was much that was problematic), will be coming soon.
After my initial post on The Orphan of Zhao, my friend Rosie Carlton-Willis commented on my post to let me know about the situation in the world of Western Opera, which, frankly, makes the RSC look like pioneers of diversity in comparison, and which also illustrates just how far this debate extends.  My students will also cite the sci-fi movie Cloud Altlas.  I’m copying part of Rosie’s comment here:

The weekend (15-16 December) was interesting. After some intense conversation on the use of blackface in opera, media responses to this phenomenon and related issues, I went to the cinema to see a production of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Wonderful singing, but of course, in an opera which does not have a single white character, there was not a single black artist in a principal role, and the two Ethiopian characters, Aida and her father, were in dark makeup, to differentiate them from the Egyptian characters.

I looked on the Met’s website to see their casting for this season. In a season of 29 full scale opera productions (including an ‘Otello’ – yes, white tenor in blackface), there are maybe 5 people of colour named in principal roles on the website. One African American artist, one East Asian and a small handful who would maybe identify as Latino/Hispanic. Does this represent the balance of available talent? I doubt it.

I’ve tended to think that for achieving racial justice in the opera industry (some way to go yet…) so-called ‘colourblind casting’ would usually be the best option – casting solely on voice-type and ability, not necessarily relating the race of the character to the race of the performer. But this is not what I’m seeing at the Met this season: instead, what I’m seeing is an overwhelming bias towards hiring white performers in all roles. Is there one solution for the opera industry? Does a more just state of affairs involve hiring only black artists for ‘Aida’ and East Asian artists for ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot’ and by extension, only white artists for ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and the ‘Ring Cycle’? That looks something like justice but seems restrictive to me, given that a dramatic tenor, say, may be equally well suited to Otello, Radames, Siegfried and other roles, and should not be restricted to a smaller number on account of race. But the current situation is outrageous. Is it time white artists started turning down roles like Aida? Singers and scholars, I’d welcome your thoughts. By Rosie Carlton-Willis

Carol Chillington Rutter’s chapter ‘Shadowing Cleopatra’ in her book Enter the Body: Representations of Women on the Shakespeare Stage challenges us to stop and think about the extent to which we accept without questioning traditional casting practices – and looks at the tendency of liberals to defend or justify these practices.

* Amanda mentions that none of the RSC team who were invited to the roundtable came, but for the record I would like to note that my friend Dr. Li Ruru was touring China at the time with a group of Leeds University student actors performing Cao Yu’s The Sun is Not for Us.  Ruru and I may take different positions on the casting of the RSC production, but she works tirelessly to promote Chinese theatre in British academia and beyond.

A World Elsewhere: Boris Godunov at the RSC

Boris Godunov, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Adrian Mitchell and directed by Michael Boyd for the RSC, the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, 2nd January 2012

(c) RSC

(c) RSC

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s A World Elsewhere season follows on from 2012’s World Shakespeare Festival and is the  introduction to Gregory Doran’s Artistic Directorship.  As such, the start of his reign as Shakespeare Tsar looked good: resisting Bardolotry by introducing great works of world drama (Chinese, Russian, German) to the Stratford stage. Although of course, for obvious marketing reasons (as is the case with all the RSC seasons)  links with ‘the Bard’ are highlighted. In this case, ‘the Swan Theatre premieres a trilogy of newly-adapted international plays, in repertoire from November, exploring what was going on in the rest of the world during Shakespeare’s lifetime.‘ However, A World Elsewhere has not been without its controversy, especially around the ethnic composition of the season’s ensemble cast. Flagged up as ‘an ethnically diverse company’ (p.1) in the programme notes, the casting of white actors in most of the major roles across all three productions, and the British East Asians to minor roles, especially in the Chinese play, led to allegations of institutionalised racism. In fact, the reason the RSC gave for casting so few East Asian actors in this season was that they would have to act in non-Chinese plays.  Which is strange, as the central figure of the Russian play was of Tatar or Mongol origin, a point the translation made much of, and its rebels came from across Central Asia, making the BEA actors closer in ethnicity to most of the characters than the white British…

Boris Godunov (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Boris Godunov (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Boris Godunov, the first in this trilogy of world classics that I saw, is a translation of Pushkin’s 1825 play about the rise and fall of one of Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki, or secret police, who takes the regency during the short reign of Ivan’s ‘cretin’ son, and is rumoured to have murdered the rightful heir to the throne, the boy Prince Dmitry.  Boris is challenged by a bored young monk, Grigory Otrepiev, who, on learning that he would be the same age as the dead prince had he lived and has the same colour eyes (brown!), decides to leave the cloisters and set himself up as pretender to the throne with the help of Russia’s old enemies, Lithuania and Poland.  Pushkin, the programme tells us, deliberately chose ‘ a historical period that resembled that of Shakespeare’s History plays, a lead character that echoes the guilt-ridden Macbeth and a cunning Richard III, and a style and structure that juxtaposes comic scenes with the main action of the tragedy’ (p.9).

(c) EPA/Kerim Okten

(c) EPA/Kerim Okten

The director Michael Boyd goes on to suggest that this is because, like Shakespeare, Pushkin was attempting to avoid the censorship of an authoritarian state by cloaking his satire in borrowed, ancient robes.  He was not exactly successful, and the play was barely performed during his lifetime ‘because it was deemed unseemly for men of the church to be depicted in the theatre’ (Julie Curtis, p.12). The programme neatly makes a contemporary parallel of apparent respect for the church being used to silence political dissent under a despotic rular by illustrating this with pictures of Pussy Riot, the punk-girl band convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after singing an obscenely lyric-ed, anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral (pp.12-13). And, for those who hadn’t bought a programme, the small music ensemble opened the play with a traditional Russian folk-tune sabotaged by a grunge bassline…

So did this production translate to the RSC stage? Yes and no.  The mise-en-scène was clever.  Non-realist, Absurdist even, the battle scenes were enacted by thrashing coats to the ground, and a cavalry charge by actors mounting the backs of their fellows.  The loveplot centred on a midnight meeting in a garden: four actors swung forward from the balcony and poured water from white enamel ewers into basins balanced on heads of another four actors below. ‘The fountain!’ Grigory announced, helpfully. In order to underscore the political dimension of the production, the actors stepped in and out of costumes hanging from hooks at the back of the stage, making this not a timeless production but one that spoke simultaneously to different times.  From Renaissance furs, through early nineteenth century tails and Regency dresses, they ended up in 21C suits and ties, illustrating Boris Godunov’s continuing relevance – although I have to admit, the softly spoken, slightly cuddly Lloyd Hutchinson as Boris was rather more of a Gordon Brown than a Vladimir Putin. Now trying to be a good and fair leader, fate and the haunting of his past sin conspired against him.  Reduced to a shivering wreck by the memory of the murdered prince, he stumbled into the audience and buried his head on the nearest shoulder.  The woman patted his arm reassuringly, clearly unrepulsed by this man who had had a child murdered in cold blood… (For the record, the historic Boris probably did no such thing.) 

(c) Ellie Kurrtz, RSC

(c) Ellie Kurrtz, RSC

Gudonov’s children, Ksenya (Joan Iyiola) and Fyodor (Christian Leith) were interesting touches, further humanising the central character.  Ksenya, in perpetual mourning for her betrothed, a foreign prince she had never met, held his empty picture frame throughout, at one point dancing with his imagined image (Sui Hun Li). Little Fyodor seemed to reappear to his father as the apparition of the cut-throated Prince Dmitry until he and the audience realised that the child had been playing with red paint and a paintbrush. Yet this was billed as a comedy about tyranny, so the boy’s stunt brought a laugh. The fickle crowd added to the satire, and Susan Momoko Hingley, as the woman bashing her baby, first for crying in times of joy then again for not crying when the crown mourned, was very funny indeed.

The late Adrian Mitchell’s script was brilliant, crackling with acerbic wit and, at times, hilarious doggerel, such as when the two drunken monks coerced the young runaway Pretender, Grigory, to speak in very bad rhyming couplets, much against his better judgement.  However, the dialogue was rarely delivered with the energy of the text – a directorial decision perhaps rather than a lack of nuance on the part of the cast, particularly as the same actors bristled with energy the next night in Doran’s The Orphan of Zhao.  Michael Boyd’s Boris Godunov was a concept driven production, entirely in keeping with Eastern European theatre traditions he trained in yet, unlike many Eastern European productions of the classics, not quite able to match its visual ideas with its verbal delivery.  This was because, although adapted into contemporary and often colloquial English by Mitchell, the lines were mostly delivered in the careful, measured tones of traditional Shakespeare-speak: a little too slow to get the laughs, a little too enunciated to bring out any emotional nuance. Grigory, by contrast, shouted a lot.  Again, this declamatory delivery of ALL his lines seemed to be on purpose, perhaps with Boyd intending to set him apart as the charismatic and passionate young rebel. In reality, the overall effect was that the dialogue was either sluggish or shouty, with the exception of Lucy Briggs-Owen as the slightly bonkers, power-heady Polish princess love-interest, Joan Iyiola as the mournful Ksenya Godunov and James Tucker as the deliciously slippery Prince Shuiskin. Likewise, although the Swan’s thrust stage allows for a real sense connection between audience and actor, and although the production utilised the space fully, with characters appearing amongst the audience, the more agile of the cast climbing up ladders into the galleries, the lack of direct eye-contact throughout meant that the fourth-wall was replaced with what I term the ‘goldfish bowl’.  It was only in the final moments that the audience was called on to respond as if we were the Moscovite crowd, complicit in the endless cycle of tyranny, and by that time it was too late – instead of rapturously applauding the reign of Grigory, we simply politely applauded the end of the show. So despite its fine visuals, the pacing and its lack of connection to the audience, allowed its energy to seep away, so that ultimately it was never entirely engaging as comedy, tragedy or satire.

(c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

(c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

As an afterthought, I wonder whether, if Boyd had gone for Boris Godunov as a satire on the last British election, it may have hit home more effectively?!

Reviews:

The Independent; The Guardian; The Telegraph; The Stage