First Weekend of the First York International Shakespeare Festival: A Musical Interlude

And so the inaugural York International Shakespeare Festival has begun. This first weekend had somewhat of a musical flavour, as I took in a Kabuki Ophelia, a not so silent ‘silent’ Hamlet, a baroque mock opera and a discordant Feste in a garden shed.

Two Shakespeare Heroines performed by Aki Isoda at the de Grey Rooms, Friday 8th May, 2015

To describe Aki Isoda’s performances as a ‘cultural curiosity’ is deeply problematic, but this seems the best way to sum up this extraordinary evening. Mrs Isoda, now 85 years old, has been performing Lady Macbeth and Ophelia for about 50 years, and her performances seem frozen in time, museum pieces capturing the gestures and sounds of a theatre of the past. Indeed, both parts of her production, Lady Macbeth ‘performed in the Western style’ and Ophelia ‘performed in the Japanese style’, brought to life for the researcher the grainy early twentieth century images of Shingeki New Theatre and traditional Kabuki.

From the reviews, it seems that Isoda’s Lady Macbeth was the hardest for European audiences to appreciate, leaving Lily Papworth ‘a little disappointed’. Lady Macbeth, in red wig and ‘whiteface’, her eyes enlarged with bright blue eye-shadow to mimic Western features, evoked the typical representation of Europeans on East Asian stages until as late as the 1970s.  This first originated in Japanese Shingeki, or New Theatre, which adopted the plays and the realism of Western drama as part of the educational and cultural reforms of its modernisation movement in the period leading up to the First World War*. Isoda’s stylized realism, with its rigid gestures and melodramatic frozen postures, reminded my friend Elizabeth Sandie of silent film, and me of the traces of traditional theatre forms, and it is likely that these were both factors in the development of this aesthetic.  Indeed, in 1904 and 07 there were the first Shingeki Shakespeare productions, featuring for the first time since the age of Shakespeare, actresses in the women’s roles.

Aki Isoda as Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Aki Isoda as Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Isoda’s performance was largely a solo affair, in a tradition inherited from noh, as she enacted key scenes from Macbeth to an invisible, silent husband: reading his letter, scolding him for not leaving the daggers to incriminate the king’s guards after his regicide, reassuring his guests that he was simply having a funny turn as he saw visions of these daggers and his murdered friends. She also progressed through a series of spectacular costumes, one minute in the bright red gown of a Queen of Hearts, then in the ghostly white of her night gown as she tried to wash away the damned spot. I have tried to find archive footage of this performance in its early days, for I imagine that her speech, now quavering, once contained great power. Or perhaps the quavering was also because she was engaging in onnarashii (女らしい), the traditional behaviours and speech that is gendered as ‘feminine’ or ‘gentle’ in Japanese culture. I am not a Japanese speaker, so that is only conjecture.

I said that this was largely a solo performance, but there were also three young actors performing as the weird sisters, in a not entirely successful incorporation of a contemporary Western aesthetic. The juxtaposition jarred, but perhaps this was intentional, underscoring the difference of the two approaches.

Her second performance, after the interval, was better appreciated by the audience. This is perhaps

The drowning of Ophelia (c) York Theatre Royal/Aki Isoda

The drowning of Ophelia (c) York Theatre Royal/Aki Isoda

because, as noted by academics such as Alexa Huang at the BSA conference on Local/Global Shakespeares in 2009, the ‘cherry blossom exoticism’ is somehow more accessible to Westerners. The irony is that because it is more strange it is less strange, comfortably meeting our expectations of cultural Otherness. As Lily Papworth put it, ‘I realised that this was what I had been hoping for. Performed in typical Kabuki fashion, Isoda’s Ophelia was beautiful’.  And she is right, it was oddly beautiful. We have a cult of youth and realism, so it was very strange to see an octogenarian Ophelia with trembling hands sketch out the fan dances of her youth. Perhaps this was what it was like for the audiences who watched the great Victorians perform their Hamlets and Ophelias into old age. Elaborate scene changes, by the ‘invisible’, black clad kuroko stage hands and accompanied byJapanese shamisen music, became part of the performance as the Kabuki actress changed her kimonos and headpieces offstage. By half closing my eyes, I could semi-transform her into a young girl again.

But dare I say it? In concept and delivery, I couldn’t help thinking of Miss Havisham. ‘So new to him,’ she muttered, ‘so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!’ (Great Expectations)

Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

Lady Macbeth (c) Aki Isoda

*This in turn influenced the drama of the Chinese Reform Movement,  huaju, or spoken theatre, as Chinese students returned from studying abroad in Japan and Europe.

Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance screened with live musical accompaniment by Robin Harris and Laura Anstee at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, Saturday 9th May, 2015

(c) York International Shakespeare Festival

(c) York International Shakespeare Festival

I have written before on this wonderfully weird 1921 German Expressionist film version of Hamlet, in which Prince Hamlet is really a princess, a travesti performance by the extraordinarily, androgynously beautiful Danish actress, Asta Nielson.  See Girl Interrupted. So in this review I will simply focus on the sound. Judith Buchanan, in her introduction, noted what a misnomer ‘silent film’ is: it is anything but silent if screened in context, with a musical accompaniment. Robin Harris and Laura Anstee provided a stunning score, played live by them, that gave emotional depth and texture to a medium which is, in many ways, as removed from modern understanding as Kabuki is removed from Western realism. Nielsen’s nuanced performance ranged from skittish flirtation with an unsuspecting Horatio, ‘voiced’ through a recorder, to manly swashbuckling, the rhythm percussively beaten out. For her clowning scenes at the expense of the hapless Polonius, we slipped into a jazzy little number that reminded me of the escapades of Harold Lloyd (I watched these regularly on Saturday morning children’s telly in the 70s). The exaggerated gestures and expressions of silent cinema can seem like caricatures in less stunning limbs and faces than Nielsen’s, but Anstee’s cello further anchored our identification with Hamlet’s trauma in its haunting alto. The music at this screening also hinted at other elements in Nielsen’s biography, perhaps :-

(c) Silents Now

(c) Silents Now

Harris and Anstee met whilst working on another silent film, Hungry Hearts, about the Jewish immigrant experience in America.   They were both part of the She’koyokh Klezmer Ensemble. There were echoes of traditional Jewish music in their Hamlet score. Ophelia was played by a Sarah Jacobsson. Nielsen herself sent money to assist Jewish refugees in World War II.

Shedspere performed by my daughter’s friend’s mother’s friend’s son of the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre in a garden shed, King’s Manor lawn, Saturday 9th May, 2015

In this little piece, small audiences of three or four were invited into garden sheds by members of the youth theatre, who then delivered monologues based on a Shakespearean character. I joined a teenaged Feste, who exuded middle aged world weariness in his faded jester’s velvet as he swigged vodka, bemoaned his displacement by Malvolio in Olivia’s house of mourning and discovered he now could neither play his lute (well, banjo) nor sing his songs.  It was really rather good.

Pyramus and Thisbe performed by Opera Restor’d at the National Centre for Early Music, Sunday 10th May, 2015

And to end it all was the bonkers baroque mock opera of Pyramus and Thisbe, featuring all the characters of the mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but instead of the Athenian court, the ‘English’ opera troupe had to prove to the foppish Mr Semibreve and his friends that they could perform as well as any Italian. The full opera (an hour long) was prefaced by a recital of instrumentals and songs from various 18th Century musical adaptations of The Tempest, faithfully reconstructed by Opera Restor’d. I’ve never seen any of these 18th Century afterlives of Shakespeare that I’ve read about and they were hilarious and moving by turns.  I’ll leave the pictures to speak for themselves (they are from a previous production, but the costumes, if not the performers, are the same).

(c) Opera Restor'd

(c) Opera Restor’d

(c) Opera Restor'd

(c) Opera Restor’d

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Chinese Coriolanus at the Edinburgh Festival: Play out of Context?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua, translated by Ying Roucheng and performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) at the Edinburgh Playhouse: Edinburgh International Festival, 20-21 August, 2013

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

(I was initially gutted to realise that Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus, originally performed in Beijing in 2007, was playing at the Edinburgh International Festival this August for ‘two days only’: those two days were the first  after my baby’s due date! We live in England…  ‘It’s only a play,’ I tried to tell myself. Only a play directed by the main subject of my PhD, Chinese experimental theatre director, Lin Zhaohua… But thanks to the extraordinary punctuality and rapidity of delivery of my youngest son (we didn’t have time to get out of the taxi!), and the extraordinary generosity and understanding of my civil partner, I managed to get to see Coriolanus on the Wednesday night, so exhausted and baby-brained that I was relieved that the production was punctuated by the controversial intrusion of heavy metal bands – they certainly kept me awake and paying attention!)

I saw Lin Zhaohua’s remarkable post-Tiananmen Hamlet in 1995, at the Tokyo International Festival. Then, in 2011, I also saw his renderings of Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Chekhov’s Ivanov, as part of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s ‘Lin Zhaohua Festival’. All starred his long term collaborator, the veteran actor Pu Cunxin, and all, it appeared to my friend and interpreter, Zhou Yan, and to me, were about lonely men, alienated in someway from the communities around them.

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

During our interview with Lin (2011), he told us excitedly that he had just been in discussion with ‘a man from Edinburgh’. But how would Coriolanus fare when transferred to the Scottish stage, my friend wondered? Would Westerners be able to understand him? Reviews of the Edinburgh production have been mixed, as was my own response to it, but whatever my reservations about some of the nuances of this incarnation, it was certainly a brilliant night’s entertainment. Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most political tragedies – variously interpreted as a critique of the abuse of autocratic power or as a warning against the fickleness of the masses – is an interesting choice for a director who repeatedly insists that he is not political, especially if viewed as part of the triptych of his other Shakespeare appropriations, the aforementioned Hamlet, and Richard III. When Lyn Gardner dismissed the production as ‘offering empty spectacle in the place of nuanced political comment and metaphor’, she was rightly upbraided by a young Chinese woman in the comments below: I think having chosen this play is one brave movement itself. As scholars Li Ruru and Alexa (Alex) Huang have explored in relation to Shakespeare in Mainland China, and Dennis Kennedy has explored in relation to political Shakespeare behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes simply the act of putting on a play is the political comment and metaphor. Lin Zhaohua is a complex case because of his longevity and status – in the 1980s he was the founder of modern Chinese theatre experimentalism, along with self-exiled playwright and Nobel laureate Gao Xinjian, a form that in itself was deeply politically subversive in its rejection of socialist realism, and as a result they faced official criticism and some of their work was banned; yet, as a Beijing intellectual through and through he has chosen to stay in the politically conservative capital city of Beijing (he hails from neighbouring Tianjin) and had formerly risen to the position of BPAT’s vice president. For me, what is often most intriguing is how practioners appear to work within the restraints of the system,  yet encode their work with slippery, ambivalent details that to outsiders of that system may seem ‘opaque’ or simply absurd (as opposed to Absurd…).

I have linked to several other reviews so for the rest of this one I will concentrate on what I think were the main areas of cross-cultural tension or misapprehension in the reception of this production, and think about the ways I would try to understand them in a Chinese context.  Please feedback in the comments section below with your insights, and any corrections.  It is also important to note when responding to the professional criticism (cynicism?) of broadsheet reviews that the performance I attended was met with rapturous applause and much excited post-performance chattering, whether from elderly European Sinofiles or young East Asian rock fans...

The first, and most talked about, innovation was Lin Zhaohua’s incorporation of two Beijing bands, one heavy metal, the other more indie rock, into BPAT’s production – used not only as incidental music but, as commentators have put it, as a metaphorical battle of the bands between Coriolanus/the Romans and Aufidius/the Volscians. ‘Heavy Rock Coriolanus Turns Up Volume at  Edinburgh Festival’ shouted the BBC headline.  Andrew Dickson of the Guardian, veteran reviewer of the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe, loved it, describing it as surprising, gnarly, and as adding ‘volcanic energy’ when the bands Miserable Faith and Suffogated ‘slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal.’ Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph, in another thoughtful, if not so thoroughly researched, review found it an ‘arresting concept’ evoking  ‘China’s tumultuous embrace of Western influences.’  (Gardner showed her disdain by barely mentioning them.)  Many reviewers returned to this idea of Western influence in the music.  In fact, Brian G Cooper of The Stage complained that in Lin’s Coriolanus, a production transferred from Beijing (unlike the National Theatre of China’s Richard III devised for last year’s Globe to Globe) the ‘uniquely Chinese theatrical influences are conspicuously absent’ throughout. He was perhaps not aware that until very recently Chinese traditional theatre (Beijing Opera etc) and the more recognisable Chinese spoken theatre, originally a western import, have been two distinct traditions – I certainly had no awareness of this until I began researching this area. This got me thinking about the use of music, specifically, the music found in Chinese traditional theatre. These rock bands reminded me of the musicians in Beijing Opera, who often sit onstage, visible to the audience. And while British audiences expect lutes and flutes to accompany Shakespeare, Beijing Opera goes for clashing cymbals (if not thrashing guitars) whenever a General or king enters the scene.  Could this supposedly Western-style production be rather more Chinese then we give it credit for? And Andrew Dickson was onto something with his reference to nu-metal.  Rock music in China has a political heritage.  It’s first post-Cultural Revolution, Open Door Policy rock god, Cui Jian, entertained the students in Tiananmen Square, his ‘Nothing to My Name’ becoming part of the soundtrack to the demonstrations.

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Which brings me to reflecting on the problems that some had in engaging with the production at all, who felt it was ‘lost in translation’. Andrew Dickson was at an advantage – he had been sent to Beijing to interview the Master Lin.  But he also has another advantage: he does his homework, finding out answers to the things he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. This couldn’t be said of most of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review from the Edinburgh Festival. If I wasn’t writing this blog I would doubtless be whinging about the waste of licence fee payers’ money. Haven’t they heard of Wikipedia???  😉

Tom Sutcliffe described it as ‘a very dull production. Pu Cunxin (Coriolanus) comes to the front of the stage and many of the scenes are blocked geometrically so the characters are all speaking out at us, not addressing the characters that they are actually talking to in those scenes, and it gave it a very rigid, very formal feel which I felt just drained all the excitement out of it.’  I wondered if he had ever heard of this German bloke called Brecht and how he had gone to see this performance by this Chinese bloke called Mei Lanfang, and as a result come up with the V-Effekt…

Pu Cunxin’s ‘a bit RSC,’ continued David Schneider, ‘a bit RSC meaning he loves the costume, he loves the swagger, the swish of the cloak and standing with one leg forward and leaning on it’. Tom took it up: ‘It’s a very old kind of actor manager style. Or it looks that way to us. ‘ Ay, there’s the rub. It looks that way to us. Martin Hoyle in the FT saw ‘rhetorical moments’ which found ‘the individual actor caught in an attitude that fleetingly resembles the pose of a Victorian theatrical print or cut-out character for a toy theatre.’ And those fleeting resemblances were certainly there. But that was not all that was there.  In the swagger, the swish of the cloak, the fixed postures, were echoes of other generals from other traditions. And with contemporary spoken drama directors in China intent on Sinocizing the form, they were perhaps intentional echoes.

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

They were quite right about the crowd scenes, though.  These scenes which must have been so electrifying in Beijing were indeed ‘limp’.  Mostly young, middle class looking girls and boys with shiny hair (although not as shiny as the long locks of Suffocated headbangers) they resembled overseas students rather than democracy protesters or rioting peasants, which it turns out was exactly what they were. With one hour’s training and one rehearsal, these locally recruited extras were actually pretty good in the circumstances, if not very menacing (see linlin_peony’s response to Gardner’s review for further details.)  This is perhaps the main reason that Tom Sutcliffe and Gardner, coming from a culture where we expect our political theatre to look like and market itself like the Belarus Free Theatre,  struggled to see the politics.  Sutcliffe introduced his BBC review with ‘the production seems to studiously avoid any allusion to popular discontent in China or any direct suggestion that a notionally socialist country might have its own patrician class’. What if he had read about the original production in Beijing? In his interview with me in 2011 Lin had said, ‘In Coriolanus, I cast real min gong [migrant farm labourers] to express my ideas about society – it was my way to express who are the real heroes.’ My interpreter suggested that New China is built with their hands, although older Chinese, such as William Sun Huizhu, writing in the programme, notes that ‘My guess is that the translator Ying Ruocheng and the director Lin Zhaohua’s shared interest in this play, about a leader devoured by the masses he arrogantly believes he is leading, could be attributed to their experience in China’s Cultural Revolution.’ On Saturday Review only David Schneider got it: ‘There was for me a frisson about the politics though – there was that scene where they do discuss whether the herd, the populace, should have any rights at all and I think that if you do contextualise a Chinese director putting on Coriolanus and letting it speak for itself, for me there was a glow in those scenes.’

Which raises the question, is the problem (if there is a problem) with the production, the place of performance or the unpreparedness of the audience?

Does a play lose meaning out of its context? And should we judge it as a failure if we don’t understand it, like Sutcliffe and Gardner, or is it an opportunity to learn, and learn to appreciate a little more about what theatre is, as did so many other reviewers and spectators?

On another note, I was relieved to discover that Lin Zhaohua was no more forthcoming on the issue of politics with either Andrew Dickson or Mark Fisher of The Scotsman than he had been with me…

(You can read more on metal in China on MTV Iggy here Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus: Heavy Metal Shakespeare in China)

Performing China on the Global Stage: Confirmation of Speakers

University of Leeds students perform 'The Sun is Not for Us', China 2012

University of Leeds students perform ‘The Sun is Not for Us’, China 2012

Following the previous post about the March Symposium to be held at stage@leeds (details below) on 26 & 27 March, the organisors are pleased to confirm the attendance of several significant theatre professionals to give talks, including:

* Gregory Doran from the RSC,

* Tian Qinxin from the National Theatre of China,

* Davey Anderson from the National Theatre of Scotland,

* Guan Bo from the National Centre for Performing Arts, China

* Zhang Ping from the Henan Yuju Theatre.

On top of this, there will also be an exhibition of 10 different productions of ‘The Orphan of Zhao’. The productions cover different genres of Chinese spoken drama, four local operas, Western style opera, English and Korean. There will also be two workshops on the 27th led by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of China. Spaces for these are limited so book your place now!! (Details attached) ‘Stage@leeds’ is the performance building situated at the University of Leeds (Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9JT). There will be signposts on the day to guide you to the venue. Please note: It is advisable to book your tickets in advance. The event is bilingual (Chinese and English), subtitled or interpreted live by our MA Translation students.

For any further information please don’t hesitate to contact:

Milly Dent Symposium Management Intern pc10ed@leeds.ac.uk  

Elliot Pannaman Symposium Management Intern jl10ejap@leeds.ac.uk

An International Symposium: Performing China on the Global Stage, 26 and 27 March, 2013, University of Leeds

University of Leeds students perform 'The Sun is Not for Us', China 2012

University of Leeds students perform ‘The Sun is Not for Us’, China 2012

For anyone interested in Chinese theatre, including the controversial The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC, check out this two day symposium at the University of Leeds organised by Dr Li Ruru. It promises to be a stimulating and fun. The second half of my Orphan review is still pending…. Watch this space… Read the first part here.

Performing China on the Global Stage: People, Society and Culture
寰球舞台演出中国:人、社会与文化
An International Symposium 26 & 27 March 2013
University of Leeds

‘Performing China on the Global Stage’, a practice –led research network with its hub in Leeds, announces a two-day international symposium on 26 and 27 March 2013.
The symposium will include both conventional research seminars and public events of workshops and interactive presentations. Scholars and practitioners attending the symposium are from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, North America, the UK and other European countries.

SCHEDULE
26 March 2013

Session 1 9.00-13.00 including refreshment break
Discussion among contributors of the proposed book (Chinese) led by Professor Hu Zhiyi (Zhejiang University): Chinese Image: An intercultural Study of ‘The Orphan of Zhao’.

Session 2(parallel to session three) 14.00-18.00 including refreshment break
Discussion among the contributors of the edited book (English) led by Dr. Li Ruru (University of Leeds): Spoken Drama Productions in the Millennium: Theatrical Encounter with Politics, Society and Culture.

Session 3 (parallel to session two) 14.00-16.00
Much Ado About Nothing – a workshop led by Zoë Waterman, Assistant Director from the Royal Shakespeare Company UK. (Maximum participants 30). An exciting opportunity to explore this Shakespearian comedy, using classical British rehearsal room techniques to get inside character, language and storyline.

Session 4 17.00-19.00
Energy: Essence of Chinese Theatre – a workshop led by Director Tian Qinxin from the National Theatre Company of China. (Maximum participants 20). Focusing on eyes and the physicality of human beings, the workshop explores the function of energy in creativity and in reactions between performers in the Chinese style.

27 March 2013
Session 1 (parallel to session two) 9.00-10.00
Closed meeting of contributors for edited book (Chinese) to agree on the extension of the detailed outlines into chapters, and time line.

Session 2 (parallel to session one) 9.00-10.00
Closed meeting of contributors for edited book (English) to agree on the extension of the detailed outlines into chapters, and time line.

10-10.30 refreshment break

Session 3 10.30-12:00
Open panel for network partners to discuss how to take forward the project currently called Performing China on the Global Stage, including the electronic stage production repository, PG network, future live performances.

Session 4 13.00-18.00 (open to general public including refreshments)
Staging China, an interactive presentation by theatre professionals and researchers.
Part one: The Orphan of Zhao: from 5BC China to 21st century Stratford-upon-Avon
Stage productions of The Orphan include a wide range of forms: Chinese spoken drama, Chinese regional opera, Chinese Western-style opera, and the current English production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. These works will offer evidence and study cases for the examination of intra/inter/cross-culturalism, challenging the existing models and methodologies.
Part two: Contemporary Western Representations of China
Productions by the West Yorkshire Playhouse, University of Leeds, Border Crossings, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, National Theatre of Scotland and of the play Chinglish will be presented and discussed.

An exhibition of images and video in the venue foyer will provide a virtual theatre experience via over a dozen stage productions.

Supported by:

Cultural & Creative Industries Exchange, University of Leeds

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Booking Form: Workshops on 26 March (no fee)
Email: s.m.daniels@leeds.ac.uk
YOUR NAME
TELEPHONE NUMBER
Would like to attend
2-4pm Workshop 1 (RSC) 5-7pm Workshop 2 (NTCC)
Please wear comfortable clothing and soft-soled shoes for the workshops.
Places are limited and need to be booked in advance.

Book Form: Open Sessions 27 March
Email: stage@leeds.ac.uk or telephone: 0113 343 8730
YOUR NAME
TELEPHONE NUMBER
Would like to attend the Open Sessions from 10.30 at a cost of £12 (£6 Concessions) including lunch.

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

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.

Step by Step Richard III: from Jessner to Jonjo.

Notes from my presentation on the Study of Shakespeare, YSJU.

Pirchan’s set (c) VRL

Mise, from mettre, to put.  Mise-en-scène, to put into a ‘scene’, or a literal or metaphorical space.  We often equate it with another word, scenography, which refers to the set, costumes, props and even music in a production. How these elements can combine to convey a meaning as powerful as that found in language is evidenced by Emil Pirchan’s iconography for Leopold Jessner’s 1920 Richard III(see Hortmann, 1998, and Kennedy, 1993b).  Jessner and Pirchan were part of the German Expressionist movement, which rejected Realism and decorative art, as they felt these simply upheld the political, social and aesthetic status quo.  Working in the interwar period after the destruction of WWI, and witnessing the rise of facism in Europe,  they instead embraced Abstraction, for as another artist of the era stated:

“I really feel a pressure to create something that is as strong as possible. The war has really swept away everything from the past. Everything seems weak to me and I suddenly see things in their terrible power. I never liked the type of art that was simply appealing to the eye, and I have the fundamental feeling that we need still stronger forms, so strong, that they can withstand the force of the crazed masses.”
(Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, cited in The Art Story)

Or, as Paul Klee would sum up: ‘the more terrible this world, the more abstract our art’ (cited in Kennedy, 1993b: 83). See Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation for more on this.

Looking at the set for the second half of Jessner’s Richard III clearly illustrates this.  Steps dominated the stage.  My students were reminded of pyramids and tombs, monumental images connoting power and death. We then looked at Pirchan’s sketches:

Pirchan: set for the second half of ‘Richard III’

The relationship between the scenography and the bodies of the actors on the stage took on added significance when looked at through Pirchan’s coloured sketch, the only colour image that exists of this part of the production, I believe.

In an interpolated scene (prior to 4.2) Richard ascended the steps slowly for his coronation […] At the top ‘the red of the steps was linked to the red of the sky by the crimson of Richard’s gown,’ Paterson explains, ‘as though an electric charge of evil  had leapt the gap between heaven and earth’. A contemporary critic, Alfred Polger, said that ‘it is as though the sky itself provided a bloody reflection for Richard’s atrocities.’  Pirchan’s design for the scene, showing the violence of this strategy of colour, is the best evidence that the scenography carried much of the burden of the production. (Kennedy, 1993b: p 87)

The version described above became the cover image for the first edition of Kennedy’s Looking at Shakespeare (1993)

(c) Cambridge

Yet mise-en-scène extends beyond the visual surface of the play to embrace all aspects of how the play communicates meaning to its audience. Non-verbal communication includes intonation, timing, expression, gesture, spatial relationships between performers and spatial relationships between performers and the audience (see Leiblien in Kennedy, 1993a). My colleague, Julie Raby, had explored some of these ideas in a previous lecture in relation to the RSC’s recent summer production of Richard III, directed by Roxana Silbert. In this clip students had been particularly impressed with how the actor, Jonjo O’Neill, like a latter-day Vice, had seduced the viewer (and on the stage, the audience) into being complicit in his actions through his direct address.  One student noted the way he walked away, and then turned back on the phrase ‘But I‘.  As he confided in her his sense of being a rejected outsider because of his deformity, his seduction, it seemed, was complete.

Richard III, summer 2012 (c) RSC

If it’s not just the words but the relationship between the words and the body that speaks them, however, that makes the meaning, then O’Neill’s Northern Irish accent as Richard was significant because it made a statement about ownership of ‘the Bard’ both on the part of the actor, who is Northern Irish, and the RSC, who produced the play. As a visiting American student said to me last year, after he had been praised for his reading aloud, ‘But I don’t sound like Shakespeare – you sound like Shakespeare.’ What if David Tennant had played a Scottish Hamlet? A small choice has big cultural implications.  However, to people in the audience of my age, there may have been another layer of meaning perceived in O’Neill’s rendition, because to anyone who lived in the United Kingdom in the ’70s and ’80s, a Northern Irish accent was inextricably linked through the media to the Troubles. In fact, under Thatcher, the government literally tried to silence certain Republican and Loyalist figures by outlawing the broadcasting of their voices.  Journalists got around this in a surreal manner, so that I grew up with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein routinely dubbed by an actor speaking with a strong Belfast accent. Even if there had been no intended link in the minds of anyone involved in the production, the circumstances of history, and the Othering of certain a certain group through their voices, would still echo on the 21st century English stage.

Finally, with the National Theatre of China’s appropriation of this play during the Globe to Globe season, we’ve seen how  mise-en-scène extends to the language of the translation and the language of the theatre codes of whichever tradition a production is appropriated into.