The Yellowface is Bad Enough, now we have the whitewash

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PRINT ROOM

Dear Print Room

We have admired you for a long time for bringing high quality and interesting work to the London fringe.  Perhaps that is why we held off for too long in calling you out for the way you handled both the casting and marketing of your latest production ‘In the Depths of Dead Love’ by Howard Barker.  We should have spoken out earlier. But it was your response to the criticism which finally tested our patience to its limit.

This is what your original publicity says about the play:

“Set in ancient China, In the Depths of Dead Love tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court & the favour of the Emperor, who scrapes a living by renting his peculiar property – a bottomless well – to aspiring suicides”

You then list a cast of white actors, and you have been quite rightly and widely criticised for this, which is essentially the practice of yellowface.  If you need an explanation, see these pieces by Daniel York, Lucy Sheen and Amanda Rogers.

Then we see this headline in The Stage: ‘Social Media Attack will not force a change in our Artistic Policy’.  Is this just The Stage stirring things up?  Well, in a letter to supporters, we have this comment from you: “We are not willing, however, to change our artistic policy in response to a social media attack conducted, without consulting us, by people who appear not to have read the work and are therefore unable to consider the play in its artistic context,”

Oh dear. You seem to think this is a debate about art, and that we can only participate in it if we have actually read the play.  As though the greatness of the work will make up for any political incorrectness in putting it on.  Funnily enough, we witnessed some appalling yellowface recently in a production of ‘Anything Goes’ which is not mitigated in any way by the greatness of Cole Porter’s writing.  Howard Barker doesn’t deserve special treatment either.

Others have explained this better than us, but let’s just summarise:

You say: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese. These are literary allusions in Howard Barker’s fable and never intended to be taken literally. The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place’.

Remember this is meant to be an apology.  Instead, you seem to be suggesting that it is OK because the ‘Chinese’-ness is not real.  It is just a theatrical device.  Yes, this is a common technique, but it is essentially racist.  It is the use of other races and cultures to signify the ‘other’, to conjure up an exoticism of the unknown.  It is cultural appropriation and stereotyping.  Our advice? When you are in a hole, stop digging.  This is the 21st century.

You say: “The Print Room understands that some will find such an interplay between cultural reference and artistic imagination troubling. We regret that our initial public announcements about this play were not sensitive to this fact.”

Sounds apologetic until the patronising tone starts to come through. You have neatly projected the problem back onto the individual.  Your announcement was not offensive – people took offence, and by implication, these are people of limited imagination who just cannot see the greatness of Barker’s artistry.

You have also implied that because the play is ‘English’ you can only employ white actors, which in itself speaks volumes, and then used the ‘we employed the best actors for the job’ excuse, as if to imply that you couldn’t find any East Asian Actors that were good enough. We can’t actually decide which of these apparently contradictory excuses is more offensive.

But what really offends us as theatre bloggers is that the people you are referring to, the people who ‘appear not to have read the work’, are the same people who have written extensively and articulately on the subject of yellowface for a long time, who have lived with its consequences, who have campaigned on it to try to achieve real change.  Maybe, just maybe, they can tell you something you don’t know.  Yet it clearly has not occurred to you that they have more to teach you about this issue.

You have not apologised at all, and how can you?  You appear not to have understood the issue.  We hope you will enter into discussions with Equity as you promise, and that you will genuinely try to educate yourself on this topic.  You will have the perfect opportunity tomorrow on opening night.

Update 24.1.17:  Anna Chen has a compendium of updates and links for further exploration at her blog Madam Miaow Says.

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Game of Bones: Raising Martha at the Park Theatre

Saturday 14th January 2017

Raising Martha had instant appeal for us.  It is on at the Park Theatre, a venue which has consistently put on interesting and engaging work.  It is a dark comedy, always a plus for us.  And it was advertised with a high quality cast that included Joel Fry, Jeff Rawle and Jasper Britton (more of him later).

Ostensibly, this is a comedy about animal rights activists terrorising a frog farmer who has literally developed a siege mentality, holed up in one room with his own brand of booby-trap security.  The latest escapade is to steal the bones of his late mother, egged on by his niece, bringing about a macabre and unwelcome family reunion.  As the play goes on we find that everyone has their own motives, including the policeman who is supposedly investigating the crime.

David Spicer has certainly dug up some interesting themes to play with – the politics of protest and human rights (a twist on the age-old theme of people loving animals more than humans); there is the dark undercurrent of sibling rivalry and parental manipulation, and the ultimate question of what gives humans the right to mistreat animals.  Ultimately, though, it feels as though there is too much material, and a lot of exposition.  The main problem is that the absurdist comedy is not fast-paced enough to get away with the, well, absurdities.  The plot needs to be more focused, even if it is unfeasible.  And at times, there are so many holes that it becomes hard to hold on to anything.  Even the most far-fetched story needs a grain of truth, and here it doesn’t quite convince.  For example, we learn that the frog farmer has switched to a new crop – cannabis laced with hallucinogenic toad venom.  So far so clever, except that as we know from watching ‘Breaking Bad’, it’s all about distribution, and we can’t see how a virtual recluse would be making any money from his wares.  There is a lot of action which doesn’t move the plot forward, which becomes frustrating in the end.

The staging also doesn’t seem to serve the play very well.  This may sound rather churlish in such a small space, but it feels a little over-elaborate.  A lot of effort has been spent creating the atmosphere of the run down farm overgrown with cannabis plants, making it hard to mentally switch locations when we move to the animal activists flat.  A brilliant opening, where the animal terrorists are seen on a raised platform at the back literally shoveling earth down onto the scene below, becomes confusing when the same area has to double as the various burial sites of poor old Martha.

Having said all this, we have to give credit for some highly enjoyable moments – Spicer clearly has an ear for witty dialogue and has created some amusing characters.  Jeff Rawle’s passive-aggressive policeman, longing for a Midsomer style rural murder case, is an absolute joy to watch.  Joel Fry and Tom Bennett make an excellent double-act as Jago and Marc, a classic ‘dumb and dumber’ relationship which works very well thanks to the high energy wit and timing they bring to their scenes.  Julian Bleach morphs from respectable garden centre entrepreneur to psychotic, erm, psychopath in a captivating speech about slowly boiling frogs, ending with the spine-chilling line ‘well, I’m jumping out of my pan!’ as he sharpens up a sickle he has found under the sofa.  It is bizarre moments such as these that give the play a shot in the arm of dark humour and energy, even if it is not sustained.

Which leads us to the final mystery surrounding this production: whatever happened to Jasper Britton?  There were some other cast changes which were announced, but in a rather farcical series of re-photoshopped posters for the play, he was literally airbrushed out of history.  That original one must be collectible, a bit like the posters for ‘The Producers’ featuring Richard Dreyfus who never starred in the show (not that we are drawing any conclusions otherwise).  We don’t expect a blow-by-blow account of what happened, but looking at the twitter line, it seems Britton’s departure happened early enough for some kind of advance announcement to be made.

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Not So Easy to Love: Anything Goes Upstairs at the Gatehouse

31st December 2016, matinée

It wasn’t a difficult decision for us to go and see ‘Anything Goes’ at Upstairs at the Gatehouse.  This is a musical we hadn’t seen before, and after their fantastic version of Singin’ in the Rain which we saw two years ago, we were eager to see another musical classic get the UATG treatment.

We are very familiar with Cole Porter’s Music, or at least the 2002 National Theatre cast recording; by extension we were vaguely familiar with the characters, but with no idea at all what the plot was.  It turns out that really doesn’t matter – it is not so much a plot as a song delivery system – and what songs!  Most musicals have a couple of showstoppers and some nice tunes, but here we were reminded of the prolific talent of Porter, penning both music and lyrics for a cornucopia of hits including the title song, ‘You’re the Top’, ‘I Get Kick out of you’, ‘De-Lovely’, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Let’s Misbehave’.  OK, so one of those was recycled, but you can hardly begrudge him that!

The plot revolves around two old friends, nightclub singer and part time evangelist Reno Sweeney and wall-street broker and chancer Billy Crocker, as they get into various hilarious scrapes and romantic entanglements on a voyage from New York to London.
So did they manage to pull off a second theatrical coup?  Sadly, not this time.  There seemed to be some key elements which were missing.  The main plot involves Billy Crocker’s love of Hope Harcourt, a woman he has only met once before when he shared a taxi with her.  He stows away on the ship in order to convince her to marry him and ditch her English fiance.  It’s a common enough plot device, but there is little chemistry between them, and without that he comes across more as a stalker than a lover whose feelings are reciprocated, and the superficiality of the premise is cruelly exposed.

Then there is the traverse staging layout.  We noted with Singin’ in the Rain, which had a similar layout, that they just about got away with it ‘by keeping the staging very simple and making the ends of the stage the main focus’.  But in this case, perhaps because the action is more comedic and revolves around farce, and the dance numbers more ambitious in scale (it’s all relative), all the disadvantages of a traverse layout came to the fore.  The most notable being that with the seats arranged on either side of a thin strip of stage area, even in a venue this small, one cannot even see all the action without getting ‘tennis neck’.  And as we noted in our review of Victor/Victoria at the old Southwark Playhouse, traverse staging is not a good way to do farce, where the action needs to be clearly signposted and easy to follow.  Although some of the dance duets worked very well, any more than three on stage suddenly felt like a very large crowd, and with choreography that was more suited to a large stage, the effect was magnified.  Perhaps more scaled down choreography would have been more effective, but then, why start out with a stage layout that offers so many problems in the first place?

There were some positives, but before we go on to them there is one more element of the show which in our opinion was an unforgiveable ‘sin’.  There does of course need to be some kind of silly pretext for resolving the situation so that the right couples can marry each other, that’s traditional.  And perhaps in the 1930s it was also a tradition to laugh at racial stereotypes.  But we couldn’t quite believe our eyes when Billy Crocker came on in a Chinese outfit and proceeded to impersonate a Chinese character with a cod Chinese accent in order to break up the marriage ceremony before revealing his true identity.  Would this have been OK if he had blacked up and adopted a Jamaican or African accent?  We think not.  Yet for some reason there are still Directors out there who think this kind of ‘yellowface’ is OK.

But it was not all gloom and doom – there were some stand-out performances to savour. Taryn Erickson was brimming with confidence as Reno Sweeney from the moment she made her entrance, and walked a nice line throughout between world-weariness and unabashed optimism.  She had a captivating stage presence and gave a strong vocal performance too, ably supported by her ‘angels’ Lucie Horsfall and Chloe Porter.  As Evelyn Oakleigh, Jack Keane gave an assured performance which belied his very recent graduation from Drama School.  Extracting every possible opportunity for humour, particularly physical comedy, he had an impressive command of the stage, and pulled off the unexpected feat of making the ‘stuffy’ Englishman a rather attractive proposition through his relentless eccentricity.  David Pendlebury nicely captured the humour of Moonface Martin’s situation as a gangster well out of his comfort zone.  We loved Samantha Dorsey’s pure singing voice which was used to good effect in the soaring ‘De-Lovely’ and ‘All Through the Night’, although we would question whether she was the right character to sing ‘I Get A Kick out of you’, which is normally given to Reno Sweeney. Finally the band, under Musical Director and Orchestrator Dan Glover, deserve a big shout-out for recreating the richness and glamour of Porter’s music in a small space with only six musicians.

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Drones Baby Drones finds its target at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 5th November 2016, matinée

Despite the lurid title, a quote from a former US defence secretary, Drones, Baby,Drones is a serious attempt to explore a form of warfare which needs to be brought out from the shadows.  Some of the names on the bill were already familiar to us from the marathon cycle of plays about nuclear weapons which Nicolas Kent put on at the Tricycle four years ago – The Bomb – A Partial History.  Here he directs while Ron Hutchinson and David Grieg write (or in Hutchinson’s case, co-write) a play each to make a compelling double-bill. At 110 minutes total running time, it’s a little shorter than the ten play spectacular they previously contributed to, but this creative team have lost none of their edge, and they have homed in on another timely and disturbing subject.

The first play refers to the regular Tuesday meetings at the White House where the targets for drone strikes were chosen.  The second explores the aftermath of a strike from the point of view of the ‘pilots’ who carry out strikes on the other side of the world.  Both plays are introduced by quotations from Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, giving some unpalatable facts about the realities of drone warfare.

‘This Tuesday’, written by Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb, is skilfully put together and engaging, and hits the ground running with a serious car accident that becomes a pivotal event for one of the leading characters, as well as a metaphor for the strikes themselves.  The personal lives and political arguments are interwoven seamlessly, pressing home the message that however sophisticated the technology, there will always be a human, with all their limitations and failings, somewhere in the mix.  The various justifications, all claiming some kind of logic and objectivity, are paraded before us leaving a powerful sense that these meetings may not be as objective and rational as they claim. At well under an hour, though, this play does feel unfinished, and in such as short time, there is not much opportunity for the political arguments to get beyond the superficial.

David Grieg’s ‘The Kid’ explores what drone warfare does to the perpetrators, puncturing the myth of the ‘surgical strike’ and the idea that the such wars can be ‘casualty free’.  They may escape physical injury, but the mental toll is clear.  This drama is less fragmented, and with a cast of four (two drone operators and their partners), it has the feel of a cosy domestic drama ready to turn into something much darker.  The play starts with a celebration of the assassination of a long-pursued terrorist, except that one of the operators saw a small boy running towards the explosion, the other didn’t.  As the truth comes out along with the recriminations, the unnatural demands become clear.  The play ends with a spine-chilling and challenging proposition from the least likely character, the newly pregnant wife of one of the pilots.

The cast of these plays don’t waste any time establishing their characters, and they all rise to the challenge.  Anne Adams raises the emotional pitch right from the start with her performance as the mother, hysterical with grief and panic, who has just found out that her daughter may die from her injuries in a horrific car crash.  In the midst of the horror of her personal situation, she tries to ensure she can attend the Tuesday meeting to ensure the decision goes her way – she is desperate that her chosen ‘target’ is eliminated.  Not many actresses can be sympathetic and repellent at the same time, but she manages the feat. In her portrayal of the drone pilot in ‘The Kid’ she subtly suggests the gradual mental attrition of the work, which no amount of glorification can seem to alleviate.

Rose Reynolds effortlessly glides from the cocky intern, who takes great delight in taunting her married boyfriend about his Tuesday meetings, to the conflicted mother-to-be married to a drone operator and pleased to be able to enjoy the comforts of living in the suburbs on the other side of the world and have her husband home every night.  Tom McKay portrays a naive ambition in both of his characters, making a neat connection between the gung-ho security adviser who helps to choose the targets, and the drone pilot who carries out the orders.  The confident, childlike, facade is easily dented, revealing a deeper struggle with denial. Joseph Balderrama brings a grounded quality to the action, firstly as the jaded lawyer, and secondly as the partner who desperately wants to be supportive but lacks the imagination to do so.

This was a welcome taste of serious political drama, but it did leave us wanting more.  And just a few days later we were reading about new attempts to improve the performance of pilots and the difficulty of retaining them.

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Puccini at the Pub: La Boheme returns to the Kings Head Theatre

Saturday 3rd September 2016

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than five years since we first saw La Boheme at the Soho Theatre.  Little did we know that we were witnessing a phenomenon that would go from strength to strength, with both the ‘Operaupclose’ brand and the King’s Head very much alive and well (even if they have gone their separate ways).

This new version by Adam Spreadbury Maher and Becca Mariott builds on and expands a winning formula – the chance to experience the full force of operatic voices in an intimate space, with updated and audible lyrics.

We were bowled over by La Boheme in 2011, but in this version, everything has been turned up a notch.  The swearing is full on but wittily used, and of course it is always a pleasure to hear a neatly placed expletive in the middle of a gorgeous operatic aria or section of recitative.  The contemporary references and props are used to full comic and dramatic effect, and the ‘intimacy’ extends to some very amusing audience participation – if you sit at the end of a row expect to be on coat or drink holding duty, and one lucky man gets to be the ‘bait’ for Musetta’s attempts to make her boyfriend jealous with some outrageous flirting.  The characters have been cut down to just four, giving it a clear structure and the feel of a rom-com, and there is always something going on – very rarely do the characters simply stand and sing, and when they do it is all the more powerful.

Another really important element of the story is also updated, in the form of Mimi’s ‘illness’.  Here it is not just her physical but mental state that is vulnerable, and Maher and Mariott have made sense of the plot in modern terms in a way which the original couldn’t. This more sophisticated reading also gives the ending a much more powerful message about fear and acceptance and gives the characters more agency than just being victims of fate.

The production we saw was perfectly cast, with excellent performances all round.  Becca Mariott not only co-wrote the new version but also plays Mimi with great insight, showing both her torment and the strength of character lying beneath.  It is a hugely sympathetic performance because she is not just a victim – she is fighting until the end.  Matthew Kimble as ‘Ralph’ (Rudolpho) conveys a down to earth warmth and kindness beneath the slightly nerdy exterior.  Thomas Humphreys as ‘Mark’ (Marcello) conveys an effortless ‘posh-boy’ arrogance that works very well as a double-act with his flatmate.  It is a delight to see his transformation to puppyish dependence when the beautiful Musetta comes onto the scene.  Honey Rouhani is on sparkling form as Musetta, terrorising cast and audience alike with supreme confidence.  Her set piece seduction scene is played for maximum comic effect at full tilt and provides an enthralling centre-piece to the more serious romantic entanglements that precede and follow it.

Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis has brought out as much of the original beauty of the music as one can with an upright piano, ably supported by Alison Holford on cello. Both he and Maher have pulled off a great feat here, blending music and drama so well that we were completely absorbed in both – not always a feature of opera productions.

Maher and Marriot have not just given the opera a tweak to update it or superimposed a few modern references – this really is a re-imagining of the original and a fine example of the ‘intimate opera’ genre.  There will be more to come and we are particularly looking forward to new version of Madame Butterfly in the Spring.

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Why Should We Bother to Care? The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre

Saturday 27th August 2016, matinée

We’re sure it was no coincidence that Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick Theatre has been topped and tailed by two plays about performers – Harlequinade, an affectionate homage to a post-war travelling theatre company, perhaps a little rose-tinted; and ‘The Entertainer’, a bitter and rage-filled howl of desperation, where any rosy spectacles have long since been crushed underfoot.  This was a must-see for us – having see Michael Sheen on electrifying form as Jimmy Porter in ‘Look Back in Anger’ many years ago, we wanted to see what all the fuss was about with what is sometimes dubbed John Osborne’s attempt to portray an ‘Angry Old Man’, Archie Rice, the failing music hall performer trying to avoid the moment when he has to hang up his tap shoes for the last time.

One of the first things that strikes us about his play is how slight it is, considering the huge amount of expectation that must have been placed on it.  It really is a ‘slice of life’ with no real character arc for Archie.  The structure of the play seems more like a mechanism for showing the contrast between the grim, gin-soaked triviality of the family arguments and brief moments of camaraderie, Archie’s acerbic ranting, and the paper thin mask of amused detachment with which he churns out various faded patriotic numbers, just as the Suez crisis is marking the beginning of the end of Empire (or is that the end of the end?).

Bizarrely, the truly dramatic and even tragic events seem almost incidental, but perhaps this is a reflection the central character’s self-absorbed and nihilistic perspective on life.
At one point, Archie describes his decline as a performer – he can still cut it, but there is no passion anymore – he is dead behind the eyes.  Kenneth Branagh takes this self-diagnosis to the limit, with a performance driven by a maddening lightheartedness that treats everything as meaningless.  His quick-silver intelligence cannot be pinned down, but it infuses everything with poisonous indifference.  He brings out the humour in the writing, but it only adds to the ultimate despair by giving us glimpses of a talent that seems to be constantly on the verge of bursting into life.  He is literally bouncing off the walls to try to convince himself he is still alive.

Greta Scacchi is Phoebe, Archie’s long-suffering second wife, who feels like a failure despite having pulled off the impressive feat of putting up with him for all these years and bringing up his three children.  Scacchi somehow conveys that strength of character while simultaneously denying it, making her one of the more sympathetic characters on stage. We are not sure why, but her outrage at Billy Rice making a start on the special cake she had bought for her son’s return was both tragic and hilarious.  Gawn Grainger as Billy Rice, Archie’s father and mentor has a nice line in passive aggression.  As the retired old stager, he has nothing to prove, and he seems to be the only one trying (in vain) to enjoy life.

Is there enough here to enliven and truly ‘revive’ Osborne’s original?  Sadly we’d have to say that the quality of the production exposes the flaws in a play which now seems out of its time.

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Requiem for a Spouse: The Kreutzer Sonata at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 16th July, matinée

We can’t believe we have left it so long to go and see Greg Hicks on stage after seeing him in Little Eagles, an intriguing play about the Russian Space Race, five years ago.  Having said that, at least ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ offered us just over ninety uninterrupted minutes of Hicks alone on stage (with live musical accompaniment), in the intimate Arcola theatre.  And to top it all, this is genuine original Tolstoy.

Based on a 1890 novella which was almost immediately censored in both Russia and America, the drama is set on a train, where a man named Pozdnyshev tells us how he murdered his own wife.  He is quick to explain to his audience of fellow train passengers that he was acquitted of the crime, so they needn’t move away.  But as the narrative progresses, the comfort of his imaginary companions is clearly not his priority as he gives us an account that literally pulls no punches.

In her adaptation of the novella, Nancy Harris has avoided the temptation to ‘flesh out’ the drama by bringing the other characters onto the stage (except as projected by the musicians who give us a live performance of the eponymous piece).  She keeps a single narrative voice, and the result is a powerful portrait of a man who has completely internalised the values of a paternalistic society and yet still sees himself as a victim. In some ways he is, although not in the way he thinks.  A prisoner of his own rigid beliefs, he seems like a man incapable of being happy.

The narrative is simple, concrete and clear, and at times painfully detailed – a confessional story which makes the central character frighteningly plausible, whilst filling us with dread as each mundane occurence foreshadows something darker.

Greg Hicks raises solo drama to a new level here with a compelling performance.  There is barely any set (just a couple of benches and some clever lighting which suggests a train carriage), a few props which take on a grim significance at the end, yet he conjures the whole world of his doomed marriage, from the romantic boat trip where he proposes, to the domestic milieu, the little details which fuel his jealousy and the distorted inner world which compels him to act on it.  The biggest compliment we can pay to Greg Hicks is that he seems to have no technique at all.  He is Pozdnyshev, and this is the closest we could imagine being to joining a murderer in his cell.  Better in fact, in that he makes his strange compulsion to confess and extraordinary insight and eloquence seem like the most natural thing in the world.  The performance is flawless and utterly gripping, to the extent that we were propelled back out into the sunlight feeling emotionally and physically turned over.

All we can say is, this was well worth the wait, a brilliantly tight production from Director John Terry given an extra touch of class by pianist Alice Pinto and violinist Phillip Granell. It was Tolstoy’s wish to have the story performed with live music, such a powerful transformative force did he believe it to be, and it is hard to disagree with him.

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