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Roxana Silbert’s first Hampstead season labelled ‘unethical’ in row over imported talent

The King of Hell's Palace cast.
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Roxana Silbert’s first season as artistic director of Hampstead Theatre has been criticised by British East Asian actors, who have labelled it “unethical” for the venue to fly in an Asian-American actor at the expense of UK talent.

The theatre has recently announced King of Hell’s Palace by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig will run as part of Silbert’s first season, a play set in China with a cast that includes Celeste Den, a US-based actor.

In a letter about the casting, British East Asians in Theatre and Screen – an advocacy group that campaigns for equality for British East Asians in theatre, film and television – said it was “extremely disappointed” by the move.

“The role in question is for a female in their 30s and we believe there is an abundance of British-based East Asian actresses who could play it,” the letter added.

BEATS said it was “shocked and saddened” that Silbert’s tenure will begin with a production that uses Arts Council funds to “prevent British-based East Asian actresses being given a rare opportunity to play a nuanced and humanised character in a major London venue”.

“For a publicly subsidised theatre to import diversity at such cost can only be perceived as unnecessary and, worse, unethical,” it said.

BEATS said it was not taking aim at the actor cast, but said it could not “sit idly by and watch these opportunities disappear without going our actors a well-earned chance”.

It added that Hampstead had a “lamentable record” of casting British East Asian actors and said it was only aware of one actor of East Asian descent cast in a role that was not specified “as a character of that heritage”.

The group also criticised the decision to hire Michael Boyd to direct the play. By the end of the year, it said Boyd will have directed “more East-Asian themed plays in major British theatres than any British East Asian theatre director”.

“How can this be when there is an abundance of British East Asian theatre directors?” it asked.

The open letter was published after Equity this week issued a statement criticising subsidised theatres for importing talent, rather than using home-grown actors.

Since this article was originally published, Hampstead Theatre has issued a response.

Roxana Silbert unveils inaugural Hampstead Theatre season

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