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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One thought on “A World Elsewhere: The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC Review Part 1

  1. Pingback: An International Symposium: Performing China on the Global Stage, 26 and 27 March, 2013, University of Leeds | Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

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