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RSC under fire over lack of Asian actors in Chinese play

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Casting for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s forthcoming production of The Orphan of Zhao has been criticised because of a lack of east Asian heritage actors in the play.

The 13th-century Chinese drama, which has been adapted by James Fenton and will be directed by the RSC’s new artistic director Gregory Doran, includes two east Asian heritage actors performing with puppets as a dog and one playing a maid, out of a cast of 17.

Followers of the RSC’s Facebook page have posted criticisms, with one accusing the company of a “monumental lack of sensitivity and judgement”.

Performer Anna Chen said of the production that “at least one Asian actor” should have been cast in a protagonist role, while actor Gemma Chan said there needed to be more opportunities for British east Asian actors in leading parts across the industry.

Actor Nicholas Goh said: “For the record, I was seen for this production, and was not recalled. I have no problem with this – it’s part of life for any actor, big or small.”

He added: “This isn’t really about The Orphan of Zhao. And it’s not about Greg Doran either, or the RSC. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be any fuss about this casting because we would be able to point to last year’s wonderful Chinese Malvolio, or the Japanese Hermione the year before that, or the hilarious Korean Lady Bracknell.… the industry as a whole has a problem with perceptions of colour that is not found in any other area of British society except probably politics. And that is what needs to change.”

The RSC responded with an initial statement on its Facebook page providing information on the casting decisions for the play. A few days later a second comment was added saying it was sorry people were concerned and addressing the wider implications of casting in the industry.

The post, signed off by Doran and RSC executive director Catherine Mallyon, said: “We have tried very hard as a company to lead the way in diversity on our stages. We’ve long been committed to non-culturally specific casting, regularly seeing actors of different backgrounds and casting the best actor for the part.”

They added: “We do recognise that the lack of visibility for Chinese and east Asian actors in theatre and on screen is a live and very serious issue. We are beginning the process of talking to industry colleagues, representing employers and actors, to set up a forum for wider debate which we hope will make a meaningful difference.”

Martin Brown, spokesman for Equity, said: “Equity is calling for an industry-wide debate on the casting situation for east Asian actors involving artistic directors of major subsidised theatres, Arts Council England, Skillset and the Theatre Management Association.”

In the past, British east Asian actors have spoken out about only being offered stereotyped roles by mainstream arts organisations and called for national newspapers to employ more theatre critics from diverse backgrounds to help solve the problem.

Meanwhile, last week, US playwright Bruce Norris removed the rights to his Olivier Award-winning play Clybourne Park from a Berlin theatre after he discovered that the venue intended to ‘black up’ a white actress for a leading role.

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