Eastern promise but too few opportunities

Graham Turner with Chris Lew Kum Hoi  in The Orphan of Zhao. Photo: Kwame Lestrade
Graham Turner with Chris Lew Kum Hoi in The Orphan of Zhao. Photo: Kwame Lestrade
Natasha is The Stage's joint lead critic. She has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2006 and has been part of The Stage’s Edinburgh review team since 2009
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The RSC’s production of The Orphan of Zhao opened last week at the Swan in Stratford upon Avon in the midst of, by now much discussed, controversy over the casting, or lack of British East Asian actors, as reported here in The Stage and elsewhere.

Most of the major critics seem to be in agreement that this is a strong production. In the Telegraph, Charles Spencer called it “gripping”, while Michael Billington, writing in The Guardian, was equally taken with Gregory Doran’s “superlative production”, however his worry that the controversy might “obscure the fact that this is a stunning act of theatrical reclamation” was echoed in many of the reviews.

While they’re absolutely right to hail this as an enthralling and fascinating production, this doesn’t negate the fact that the few performers of East Asian heritage have been cast in the most minor roles – and this in itself mightn’t have been quite as problematic if those roles weren’t those of servants to the main characters (who are all white).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m49245n1II8

Having seen the production this just doesn’t sit well, and speaks of a lack of thought about how this might come across, which in itself is telling.The counter argument, that an outraged response is one that misses the point - and that, as race-blind casting is practised at the RSC, it shouldn’t really matter who plays which role - seems a bit too blunt; it’s far knottier than that, a question of voice and visibility.

[pullquote]The RSC production has become the focus for deeper frustration about the lack of opportunity for BEA actors in the UK and for the way in which the roles in which they are cast can propagate certain ugly stereotypes.[/pullquote]

Ian Shuttleworth, writing in the FT, points out that “the current ensemble will also present Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s Life of Galileo, yet where are the protests at the absence of a single Russian, German or Italian? In terms of role allocation, it may be possible to make a case for some thoughtlessness, but the point of staging this tale is its universality” and I agree with this to the extent that the issue isn’t one of authenticity – the production speaks for itself, its power transcends, and I think very few people would argue that only actors of Chinese heritage should have been cast – but it is one of sensitivity and of wider cultural resonance.

The RSC production has become the focus, with a degree of justification, for a deeper frustration about the lack of opportunity for BEA actors in the UK and for the way in which the types of roles in which they are cast can propagate certain ugly stereotypes – think of The Blind Banker episode of Sherlock on the BBC – or more subtly “reproduce the status quo” as Broderick Chow discusses on his Dangerology blog.  As a result of all this an event has been scheduled by Arts Council England, Equity, the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association for February next year to discuss the issues further. It will be interesting to see where that steers the debate.

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