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Daniel York Loh: British East Asian actors deserve better than The King and I

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I at London Palladium. Photo: Matthew Murphy Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara in The King and I at the London Palladium. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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I auditioned for the current West End production of The King and I. But I very nearly didn’t go. My (extremely) long-suffering agent will attest to this but, as a mixed-race British East Asian actor, I decline around 50% of the stuff I get asked to audition for. But I’d never auditioned for a musical, so I was curious to see what that was like.

The King and I was one of those films that seemed to be on TV all the time when I was a kid. It baffled me then. It baffles me now. I’ve seen it twice on stage as well. While I can appreciate some of the music, I’ve never enjoyed it. Not even a bit.

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I hate the crassly written pidgin English, the exaggerated ethnic ticks, the patronising colonial attitudes inherent in the story that at the same time sentimentalises and sanitises that colonialism, the heavy juxtaposition of quirky but civilised ‘Englishness’ with the savagery of the ‘East’ and lastly that it flirts with the idea of romantic frisson between quirky civilised ‘Englishness’ and savage Oriental ‘Asia’, but even bottles that.

Enjoyment of The King and I probably hinges on how much you relate to the “I” in the title (as opposed to the thoroughly othered Asian characters). The middle-class white audience members with whom I’ve seen the play have always lapped up Anna, but I tend to sit there imagining her bossing me around the paddy fields.

It bothers me even more that this, along with Miss Saigon, is seen as ‘our’ East Asian show that represents opportunities for British East Asian actors (though both, naturally, have an embarrassing history of yellowface).

As problematic as Othello is, it has nothing on these two. I lost count of the number of times I was told as a young actor that one day I might even be able to play the King of Siam. This was soul-destroying to a young performer who yearned to play Iago, Uncle Vanya and Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

I have read that Bartlett Sher, the director of the current West End production, compared The King and I to The Merchant of Venice, responding to questions about its dated attitudes by asking: “Do they say that about The Merchant of Venice?”.

Well, actually they do. I’ve been in that play a few times and there’s always an extensive discussion about how you present and frame the character of Shylock and the other characters’ attitudes to him. One production I was in even cut Shylock’s pivotal line “If I can catch him once upon the hip” to present the character as less villainous.

I’d go as far as to suggest that I’m not sure The Merchant of Venice is ever quite performed the way Shakespeare wrote it, so much have times changed. Nor does The Taming of the Shrew, for that matter. There’s no escaping the fact The King and I was created in another era, when Westerners only imagined far-off places and people.

And what about my audition? The head creatives I met all seemed thoroughly professional and were obviously experts in their field. None of them were Asian, though. I struggled to read the clumsily written native-speak dialogue (“King very upset! You make anger in King!” etc) with a straight face. I was also saddened at the sight of talented Asian performers outside the audition studio waiting to take their turn to perform what academic professor Daphne Lei once described as “ethnic drag”.

While I hesitate to criticise minority-ethnic actors trying to hustle a break in the most stark buyer’s market there is, I couldn’t help wishing there was something more modern, contemporary, urgent and three-dimensional. Something worthier of their obviously substantial abilities.

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