It’s difficult to divorce Gregory Doran’s production of the play sometimes referred to as the Chinese Hamlet from the controversy that has surrounded it. As reported in The Stage, a group of British East Asian actors, led by the vice-chair of Equity’s ethnic minority committee Daniel York, has called for the RSC to host a public discussion of the issues raised by the production, seeking “fairness and a level playing field” when it comes to casting.
Graham Turner (Dr Cheng Ying) and Chris Lew Kum Hoi (Ghost of the Son) in The Orphan of Zhao at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Photo: Kwame Lestrade
It’s easy to see where this frustration comes from. This is the RSC’s first ever production of a Chinese play - and it is being presented as part of the company’s international A World Elsewhere season - yet those few British East Asian actors in the cast are in very minor roles, servants and palace guards - with the exception of Chris Lew Kum Hoi, whose role, while also small, is pivotal. And though Doran and RSC executive director Catherine Mallyon have acknowledged that “the lack of visibility for Chinese and East Asian actors in theatre and on screen is a live and very serious issue,” there’s an occasional sense of cultural dress-up, of appropriation, to this production, which is anchored in ancient China and hasn’t been in any way transported or updated.
James Fenton has drawn on various Chinese sources to retell the ancient Zhao legend, a story of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. It begins when Tu’an Gu, the favoured minister of the emperor, decides to rid himself of his rivals. When the honourable Zhao Dun refuses to go into exile, he has him killed and then wipes out his entire clan with the exception of his son and heir, who survives thanks to the efforts of country doctor, Cheng Ying. To save the child he is forced to make a huge sacrifice, giving up his own infant son so that the baby may live - but, in an ironic twist, the child ends up being raised in the palace of the man who had his family slain.
Fenton’s version is elegant, poetic and often very moving. This is a story of high tragedy, with death following death in quick succession, but Fenton softens its edges, makes of it a human and warm-blooded experience, populating the narrative with ghosts and grieving mothers.
Doran’s gripping and entertaining production contains some very striking imagery, particularly the red rain of rose petals which falls from above whenever a character dies, and Tu’an Gu’s dog, the Demon Mastiff, which takes the form of a vast, shaggy canine puppet with burning crimson eyes. From the ensemble cast, Graham Turner gives an understated and moving performance as Cheng Ying, a good man steered by circumstance into doing something appalling because he believes it is for the greater good. Joe Dixon’s turn as the villainous Tu’an Gu is altogether bigger and broader - though when his past deeds catch up with him, he quakes and cowers and begs in a manner most satisfying.
The casting issue is a knotty one and it does seem as if the wider problem of visibility for British East Asian performers has become tangled up with this one production. The RSC has pointed out that they work as an ensemble and the same cast are also performing Boris Gudonov - that the question of race shouldn’t come into it - but even so it’s difficult not to conclude - strong as the production is in many ways - that the RSC might have handled things a bit better in this regard.