Not a motiveless malignity: Iago, Othello and Desdemona at the RSC

August 27, 2015 at 12:49 pm (Colourblind casting, Multicultural Shakespeare, RSC, Shakespeare and Race, Shakespeare on film) (, , , )

Othello dir. Iqbal Khan, performed by the RSC at the RST, 26th August 2015, live cinema broadcast at the City Screen, York.

I was shocked by my own complacency toward race when I first saw this trailer for Iqbal Khan’s RSC production of Othello a couple of months ago. Othello is speaking to Desdemona, but as the camera swings from him to her and back again, something has shifted – the tone of voice, the words, the face. Was I really confused who was speaking for a moment? That was a directorial intention, I hope, because there is only room for one minority leading actor in Othello, right? Wrong.

Khan’s production, broadcast live to cinemas around the world on Thursday, ‘made history’ (in the UK and for the RSC at least) by casting Lucian Msamati as Iago opposite Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. Quarshie has long expressed ambivalence about the depiction of ‘the Moor’ not only on stage but by Shakespeare’s representation itself, famously questioning whether black actors should even play the role (although he never definitively concluded that they shouldn’t: see also Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 2004 Guardian piece, ‘My Problem With the Moor’). The subtle ways in which Khan’s casting recalibrated how we perceive Othello as the ‘race play’ has been explored by many reviewers, with Dr Peter Kirwan noting that ‘for Khan, this was not a production about a society against one man, but a society divided against itself’.  Both Iago and Othello were visibly outsiders, not because they were black but because they both held rank. As Quarshie notes, in both early modern ‘Venice’ and supposedly ‘post-racial Britain’, the general is one of ‘the only black men […] who isn’t either a cleaner, a soldier or a servant’. Thus Iago’s sense of betrayal at being passed over for promotion for the less experienced, white Cassio makes total sense.  The contemporary, 21st century setting allowed for a reading in which this Venetian society, disturbingly familiar, appeared to think that it was ‘colourblind’ – the Duke’s own daughter would be allowed to marry a ‘Moor’ if he was like Othello, apparently. Yet a feckless young white man didn’t think twice about referring to a high-ranking military leader as ‘the thick lips’ to his black friend and everyone was a bystander to casual and institutionalised racism when it came down to it. Even the righteous Desdemona compromised herself from the outset. ‘”I saw Othello’s visage in his mind”? Really??’ repeated Quarshie/Othello incredulously, only half teasing her. Although the casting of Msamati problematised what is now seen as a simplistic interpretation – that the motivation for Iago’s malignity is racism – it is important to remember that as late as the 1980s critics were pointing out that overlooking racism as a motive and a context in the play was itself deeply problematic (see Roger Day ‘Reading Othello‘ in Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon 1996). And Quarshie made his Othello either vocally challenge or reallocate lines that he argues that no black man, if there had been a black man in Shakespeare’s company, would ever had said. Thus Desdemona’s reputation was as ‘begrimed and black’ as Iago’s face, not his.

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Msamati, however, does not believe ‘that what drives Iago is anything racial at all‘. When he improvised on Roderigo’s imagery, moving rapidly from the derogatory ‘thick lips’ to the bestial Barbary horse and ‘old black ram/ […] tupping your white ewe’, he did not seem to be expressing self-loathing; rather, he grasped at an opportunity to exploit the animalistic stereotypes still prevalent in a society where white masculinity sees itself threatened by black male sexuality, and he did this simply in order to ensure that Brabantio would be enraged and disgusted enough to curtail the elopement of his daughter. Msamati sees Iago’s motivation as something ‘deeper, more dangerous, [and] emotional’: he behaves like a ‘jilted jealous boyfriend’ he says in the pre-streaming material. This gives an utterly convincing and confessional edge to Iago’s sudden claim to Othello that ‘I lay with Cassio lately’.

The scene in which this dialogue takes place is central to Khan’s re-visioning of the play, and it was a scene that raised many questions. It is usually performed as a paint by numbers demonstration of how Iago ‘[…]put the Moor/Even into a jealousy so strong/That judgement cannot cure[…]/And practising upon his peace and quiet,/Even to madness’. But, as I have already said, this was a production that sought to disrupt complacencies. The ‘noble Moor’, after all, is as problematic a stereotype as ‘the old black ram’. Quarshie’s Othello was neither. Instead he was a complex man who thrived on power and control: verbal, emotional and physical. The production’s emphasis here is on the culture of militarism: Othello was a mercenary general, a man who fought wars as much for his own personal gain (money, status, reputation). The implication was, he could be relied on to get results for Venice regardless of any rules of engagement or human rights conventions. And so, previously, we have seen a nameless, faceless man dragged on stage, tortured with drills and waterboarded, clearly under the command of Othello. Then, in a shocking and graphic reversal of power roles, Iago was presented not as the auteur of the tragedy but as a victim of his own machinations, a man who had already lost control of the plot by act three. When Othello demanded to ‘Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it/That the probation bear no hinge nor loop/To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!’ Iago was strapped to the same chair as the general’s last victim. Again tortured with the contents of the tool box and nearly suffocated with a plastic bag in a scene worthy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you couldn’t help thinking, ‘Well, what else was he supposed to say?’ In this production, it was Msamati’s Iago who became human and vulnerable.

On one level, I found this scene extremely effective. Firstly, I like grotesque violence in my early modern stage plays – the tearing out of a heart or a tongue, the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes on stage. Sanitizing man’s inhumanity to man is a dangerous thing. If it happens off-stage, out of sight, we don’t have to face the fact that we are complicit in it. It also made sense of Othello’s breakdown, in which the routine violence and abuse of his day job inevitably spills over into his personal life. Quarshie’s charismatic but deeply unpleasant Othello critiques the ‘nobility’ that is often unquestioningly bestowed on ‘our’ military personnel, as we turn a blind eye to, or even excuse, their sometimes illegal and murderous actions. What bothers me, however, was the peripheral nature of these allusions to the crimes committed by western forces at places such as Abu Ghraib. They weren’t centralised enough to make the production a political allegory, as in the work of Sulayman al-Bassam. I felt the production needed to have the courage of its convictions and much more overtly address the connections it appeared to suggest between militaristic masculinity/ entitlement/violence (domestic or otherwise), and western foreign policy in the wake of the First Gulf War. This was nearly political theatre, but not quite. We remained too wrapped up in what would happen to our star-crossed lovers (even if one was a violent narcissist) to remember to care what happened to the faceless man once he was hauled off stage. As Kirwan argues, there was a danger that the torture scenes became a device.

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Nonetheless, this was thought-provoking, intelligent and compelling theatre. The power play between the central characters and the larger society was nuanced and complex, as was the prejudice around both race and gender. Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona was particularly strong, rejecting the often infantalised, over-feminised interpretations that still dominate productions, although her fabulous dresses (somewhere between Game of Thrones and Frozen)  didn’t quite ring true. Surely this was a woman who wore trousers? Her death also seemed slightly on the traditional, tame side in a production that was not traditional or tame. Yes, she fought back, but I anticipated more disturbing violence after Othello put out the light with his boot. A man killing his wife should not be prettified.

Having said that, although I’m sometimes slightly disappointed by the predictability of the RSC’s work, directors like Khan and Aberg are bringing an engaging and energizing perspective, and although I’ve criticized Greg Doran before about his ‘colourblind’ casting practices, productions commissioned by him like this are beginning to remedy the fact that the RSC itself often presented a world where minority actors were routinely servants, soldiers or five-line dukes. Listen to the Male, Pale and Stale RSC debate 2015 here.

See Andrew Dickson on Othello and race here.

RSC theatre trailer

Other reviews: Poppy Brady Voice reviewPaul Edmonson The Stage reviewHolly Williams Independent reviewFiona Mountford Evening Standard reviewMichael Covenay What’s On Stage review

Permalink Leave a Comment

Performing China on the Global Stage: Confirmation of Speakers

March 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm (Conferences, East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Intercultural Performances, RSC, Translation, World Shakespeare Festival)

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

Permalink Leave a Comment

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

March 12, 2013 at 10:04 pm (Conferences, East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Intercultural Performances, RSC, Translation, World Shakespeare Festival) (, , , , , , , )

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.

Permalink Leave a Comment

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

January 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm (East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Hamlet in Performance, Intercultural Performances, RSC, Translation, World Shakespeare Festival) (, , , , , , , )

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

Permalink 1 Comment

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

January 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm (Conferences, East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Hamlet in Performance, Intercultural Performances, RSC, World Shakespeare Festival) (, , , , , , , , )

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.

Permalink 8 Comments

A World Elsewhere: Boris Godunov at the RSC

January 4, 2013 at 4:30 pm (Eastern European Shakespeare, Intercultural Performances, RSC, Translation, World Shakespeare Festival) (, , , , )

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

Permalink Leave a Comment

Step by Step Richard III: from Jessner to Jonjo.

November 3, 2012 at 9:37 am (East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern European Shakespeare, Globe to Globe 2012, Intercultural Performances, Literature Review, RSC, Translation, World Shakespeare Festival)

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.

Permalink Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: