Darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse: The Orphan of Zhao brings mixed messages from the RSC

The trouble with having a blog is that what you write can come back to haunt you.  Take, for example, our rather fulsome praise of Gregory Doran, at the end of our review of his recent production of ‘Julius Caesar’:

“We hear that Doran will soon be taking over as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with this production, he has certainly set the bar very high.”

Having been so publicly impressed with Doran’s African Julius Caesar, we feel compelled to comment on the controversy which his inaugural programme as Artistic Director has brought, namely the lack of East Asian actors cast in The Orphan of Zhao, a fourteenth century Chinese play currently playing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford in rep with ‘Boris Godunov’ and ‘The Life of Galileo’.  Despite a week long research trip to China, and a marketing campaign targeting the Chinese community, East Asian faces are few and far between in this production.

The first aspect of this debate to start the alarm bells ringing is that much of the protest is coming from the East Asian community itself.  This type of caucasio-centric prejudice should be a concern for everyone, not just the communities affected, yet it is down to commentators such as Daniel York in his eloquent letter to ‘The Stage’, and Amanda Rogers, who in her blog theatrical geographies gives a highly critical commentary on events, to highlight the issue.  Rogers delineates the degree to which British East Asians are simply invisible.  We’d have to agree, given the response to this controversy in which all the institutions we might expect to care about this issue have sought to minimise or ignore it.

Firstly we have the RSC.  The RSC’s predilection for audience research and highly technical audience segmentation techniques, supposedly part of their commitment to finding the right audiences, has badly let them down in this case.  Hot on the heels of RSC non-traditional casting successes such as the Asian ‘Much ado about nothing’ and African ‘Julius Caesar’, Gregory Doran has scored a spectacular own goal.  And not content with scoring, he has followed the ball through the goalposts, dug a big hole, and buried it.    Where do we start?  Trying to claim the production is ‘not really Chinese’ when the poster sports an image of a small Chinese boy, and a mandarin language campaign has been conducted to draw in Chinese audiences, seems a bit far-fetched.  Not to mention  the trailer (with every oriental cliché in the book)

and production photos, which clearly show Chinese-style costumes and sets.  Then we have the notion that being part of a repertoire of three plays is somehow an acceptable excuse for casting so few East Asians.  It isn’t acceptable, since the RSC have always been happy to use non-traditional casting in other contexts (for example the patchily successful casting of Little Eagles, ironically a play about the Russian space race).  And even if we were prepared to accept that excuse, it was Doran who chose the other two plays.  The fact that he had already painted himself into a corner by doing so doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

And what about the Arts Council, the body without whom the RSC would not be able to function as they do (and would certainly, we imagine, not be able to go on far-flung research trips).  Well, the Arts Council has form when it comes to making funding decisions that disadvantage minority groups, and its failure to welcome Yellow Earth, the UK’s only East Asian acting company into its ‘National Portfolio’ last year makes a pretty clear statement of where they think their priorities lie.

Then we have the BBC, that licence-payer funded organisation which is charged with providing balance and promoting equality.  Any outrage from this corner?  In fact there was barely any reporting at all, just a very straight article discussing the production, with three sentences alluding to the controversy and a glib reference to the fact that the RSC recognises the lack of visibility of Chinese and East Asian actors and wants to start a debate.  Well, go on then, have a debate.  Instead we have a five minute slot on Radio 4’s Front Row in which the subject is again treated as trivial, with all the fuss being made in the ‘blogosphere’ and on twitter.  Well, obviously it is taking place on the blogosphere – it is being ignored by most of the mainstream press and media outlets.  Whilst Daniel York was allowed to make several good points, it was suggested by the presenter that audiences may feel that this is just sour grapes on his part as he auditioned and was not cast.  Gregory Doran was given an easy time, didn’t address the points made, and was allowed to spout a lot of nonsensical and frankly offensive responses, for example that he wasn’t looking for ‘Russian or Italian’ actors for the other two plays (an unforgiveable attempt at disingenuity), and that had he been doing a specific Chinese play in a Chinese context the ‘Miss Saigon’ rule would apply.  Well, we are not quite sure what the Miss Saigon rule is, but we seem to recall that Cameron Mackintosh got himself into trouble over his insistence that Jonathan Pryce should ‘yellow up’ on the other side of the atlantic following his success in the West End production.  Sadly in that case the American Actors Equity Association backed down and he was eventually given a Tony award.  The poverty of expectation on the part of the BBC is saddening indeed.  Instead of arguing about technicalities with the arts correspondent, why was Doran not given a grilling on the ‘Today’ programme, and asked how he could possibly be unaware of the message his choice was sending.

And finally we have Mark Shenton, blogging for that esteemed mouthpiece of the acting industry ‘The Stage’.  We are all too aware of Shenton’s enjoyment of courting controversy, but this piece of devil’s (or should we say bigot’s) advocacy seems ill-judged and highly insensitive.  How dare anyone, he seems to be suggesting, criticise the RSC, when they have done so much for multi-racial casting.  The phrase ‘hauled over the Guardian multicultural coals’, dripping with contempt, says it all.  The fact that the publicly subsidised RSC have done what they are supposed to be doing in previous years, does not place them beyond reproach when they get it wrong.  Shenton also accuses the critics of taking the situation out of context and pretends not to know that non-traditional casting began as a mechanism to help actors from minorities to get a fair chance in theatre.  To suggest that East Asian actors do not deserve a fair crack of the whip after nearly twenty years of exclusion from leading roles in the RSC, and that if they keep asking to play characters of their own race, they will be embarking on some kind of slippery slope which would inevitably lead to their exclusion from all other parts, is ludicrous, even for him.

Never mind the irony that they are already excluded from such ‘non-traditional’ casting, which was, we believe, the point that was being made.  As Amanda Rogers pointed out, they are invisible.  But there will be another opportunity for British East Asian actors to shine when Miss Saigon is revived next year – as long as they can complete with the auditionees from Manila.

Update 28.11.12:  For more debate see the recent roundtable discussion, courtesy of Anna Chen.  We note the RSC declined to attend

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7 Responses to Darkness reigns at the foot of the lighthouse: The Orphan of Zhao brings mixed messages from the RSC

  1. Anna Chen says:

    That is a lovely piece that sums it up beautifully. Thank you. I shall post this at the British East Asian Artists FB page. Hope you’ll join if you haven’t already.


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