The RSC, a company that has recently done more for cross-cultural casting and expanding opportunities to ethnic minorities in major roles than just about any in the country, is currently being hauled over the Guardian multi-cultural coals by one commentator Anna Chen.
She has noticed that its imminent production of The Orphan of Zao (beginning performances in Stratford next Tuesday)
may be the first Chinese play, to make it to the hallowed RSC, but the only parts given to actors of east Asian heritage are two dogs. And a maid-servant. Who dies. Tragically.
She conscripts East Asian playwright David Henry Hwang in the argument, who says,
By producing The Orphan of Zhao, the RSC seeks to exploit the public’s growing interest in China; through its casting choices, the company reveals that its commitment to Asia is self-serving, and only skin-deep.
But what both Chen and Hwang fail to mention is that the RSC is an ensemble company – and this production is part of a season of plays that they are performing. Would it be better not to do the play at all? Three East Asian company members in this context seems quite generous. By contrast, its current production of Much Ado About Nothing in the West End (where it ends its run tomorrow) is cast entirely with Asian actors – just as its last production Julius Caesar there was cast entirely with black actors. Neither of those played called for it, of course, and perhaps white actors should feel aggrieved at being denied the opportunity to be considered for them.
Instead of being colour-blind, the RSC were boldly race specific there; but elsewhere they adhere rigorously, as most theatres do now, to colour-blind casting. Surely The Orpan of Zhao falls into that category. They didn’t set out to produce an all-East Asian production, so shouldn’t be criticised for failing to deliver one.
When race does matter
There are more black-and-white positions (so to speak) where race is implicit in the story of the play, as it is in Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. A Berlin theatre was recently about to stage it, when the playwright discovered, to his evident horror, that the theatre were going to have a white actress cast as a black character, and withdrew its rights to present his play.
The theatre told him, in the course of negotiations between them that he said was full of “evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons”, that “the color of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to ‘experiment with make-up’.”
That raised alarm bells for him that they intended to use ‘blackface’ and black up the actress accordingly. Norris points out,
Blackface has been and continues to be a widespread practice on the German stage. German actors of African descent are routinely passed over for roles explicitly designated for them in some of the largest theatres in the country.
As Mark Lawson has pointed out in a Guardian piece this week,
You might think that such a trick should be unthinkable in a nation with the historical racial sensitivities of Germany – and, indeed, it would be unthinkable in Britain and America, at least in straight theatre (It is still common in opera, where Verdi’s Otello is frequently sung by white tenors – perhaps because operatic drama continues to be regarded as a more artificial form.)
The Stage has been conducting a poll this week that closed yesterday, enquiring if people think blackface is an acceptable practice. The majority think it no longer is, though a surprising third don’t mind. So there’s obviously some way to go in moving on from past practice.
There’s a touching moment at the end of the Tricycle’s Red Velvet, about the 19th century black American classical actor Ira Aldridge, where he ‘whites up’ to play King Lear. But it is always a fraught area. By the same token, it seemed simply absurd earlier this summer when the Regent’s Park production of Ragtime cast a black man as the grandfather of an American WASP family – especially when he was called to sing the line about the community he was part of: “And there were no negroes”. But then this was a production that seemed to throw gender out of the window, too, casting T Booker Washington (a real-life figure) as a black woman. The production made a nonsense of the show’s own depiction of the divisiveness of race.
Review of the week
Three of the best things I have seen in the theatre over the last couple of years have been directed by the same man – Benedict Andrews. The ENO/Young Vic’s extraordinary The Return of Ulysses, the Sydney Theatre Company’s Big and Small and now, back at the Young Vic, his own version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters…
Andrews has whipped it into the here and now with some startlingly current musical references and, of course, a passionate range of expletives while still maintaining absolute fidelity to the spirit and in most cases the letter of the text and still placing us in this enclosed, stifling, inner world where what is happening outside – as in the sounds that reach us from outside: the hyperactivity of a military garrison, bands, gunshots, and so on – seems so remote. The sisters, we know, will never reach Moscow – not on account of practical, physical, considerations, but rather an all-pervasive apathy forced upon them by the nature of the society in which they find themselves.
It’s a startling play and this is a startling production. You start by wondering how so much space can suggest not freedom but total claustrophobia. It can and does.
Quote of the week
Playwright Lucy Kirkwood, whose new play NSFW opens at the Royal Court next Wednesday (November 31), on her ongoing feelings about one of the reviews her earlier play Tinderbox received:
There is one review of Tinderbox that still makes me very upset and if I wasn’t such a stubborn old cow I may have just given up and stopped writing at that point. I just felt this terrible vitriol behind the words. I was so young and it was awful. I think it must be how people feel when they get to Oxford and they realise everyone is much cleverer than they are. Suddenly you are faced with this panic and doubt.