Letters of the week

by -

East Asians cast aside for too long

Last week’s story regarding the storm over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to produce the Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao with a cast of 17, but featuring only three of East Asian descent and none of those in a leading role, didn’t quite do justice to what is a monumental event when it comes to diversity in mainstream British theatre (News, October 25, page 5).

For more than three weeks now, we have protested to the RSC and Arts Council England. Letters, emails and articles have been written, and alliances formed across the globe, in a way so organic and unorganised – in any conventional sense – that it could only have occurred in our Facebook and Twitter age.

Writers, academics and people from all walks of life have contributed to our cause. The 400-odd – and counting – comments posted on the RSC’s Facebook page include one by a deeply upset teacher of East Asian background who said she would not be taking her students to see this production, and one by a concerned mother of two mixed-race East Asian children, who now worries about her offspring’s interest in pursuing theatrical careers. This is to name but two that give a taste of the deep hurt the RSC’s ill-considered choices have made in this instance.

From the US, home to far more East Asian-descended people than is often acknowledged, the outrage has been palpable, as has the love and support towards fellow East Asians, with statements of solidarity from Tony award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and all the major East Asian theatre companies there. This show of vocal protest from a minority group so long thought of as silent, passive and obliging is unprecedented but most welcome.

For too long now, we, as an ethnic group – don’t be fooled by the surname, I’m half Chinese – have been the forgotten corner of multicultural Britain. In terms of the performing arts, we’re usually bypassed in the most brusque of fashions and left to scrap over tokenistic roles, often comprising heavy accents and of minimal character, that make building any kind of career next to impossible. When we have complained, we’ve often been told to ‘stop whining’ and ‘get over it’, such is the animosity we sometimes arouse when we have the temerity to request parity with black and South Asian actors – who are themselves under-represented. Someone even referred to me as a “selfish, stupid ethnic” when I suggested on a forum that we wanted equal treatment.

Among all the anger and hurt is a sense of deep regret that we’ve found ourselves at loggerheads with a company such as the RSC, which most of us have loved and respected down the years. I actually worked there as a young actor, and longed to go back. That door looks closed now, unfortunately, but hopefully it will open for others.

Greg Doran, the director of The Orphan of Zhao, has received a lot of flak over this. All I can say is that when I met him he came across as an intelligent, sincere and kind man. He’s clearly made an error of judgement, but I can’t help feeling the entire apparatus behind him is also culpable. So often have they cited the ‘cross-casting demands’ as an excuse for not casting more East Asians that we can only assume the powers that be in the world’s biggest theatre company simply couldn’t countenance the idea of people from our racial background playing roles in works by Brecht and Pushkin. A conservative view, at best, I would contend.

One final point. It’s often a knee-jerk reaction towards ‘disgruntled actors’ to claim that they probably weren’t good enough, and this is sometimes applied to our entire racial group. I find this deeply patronising and somewhat disingenuous. I personally could put together a list of actors that any casting director could work with at the drop of a hat. I remember well that 25 years ago the voices of conservatism would try and argue the fanciful notion that black actors weren’t very good.

Actors need to be given chances. I hope that we will now get ours.

Daniel York
Equity minority ethnic members’ committee
Email address supplied


Actors’ face value

“Can a black actor ever be just an actor?”, asks Danny Lee Wynter (Stage Online, www.thestage.co.uk/columns/performers). Of course not. And if he was “duskily un-Nordic” in St John’s Night, wasn’t Libby Purves right to say so?

But this is part of a bigger question. Can any actor just be an actor? Aren’t there all-male productions of Shakespeare? What about women losing those jobs? Isn’t there an all-black Julius Caesar touring right now?

To widen the discussion and include the disabled, remember Dudley Moore putting his case before Peter Cook to be a one-legged Tarzan? My own grumble is I’m 84, and there are lots of youngsters out there putting in wrinkles and highlighting cheekbones to take my parts.

Wynter ends by wishing for “a future in which there are only actors. No prefix”. Tell that to the casting directors.

Bernard KayRoundwood Road
London NW10


Revising classics isn’t so dumb

I’m interested that Christopher West equates revising the classics with dumbing down (Stage Talk, October 25, page 8).

Shakespeare first produced The Winter’s Tale in 1611. The text was, as with so many of his plays, inspired by another play, in this case his contemporary Robert Greene’s Pandosto, first performed in 1588. Pandosto has enough in common with Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale for scholars to think Greene used it as a source – predictably, Chaucer very likely borrowed from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

All art is refurbishment – people come along and see something that inspires them, they refashion and recreate it and then they send it out into the world, slightly changed, for the rest of us to enjoy. That’s not dumbing down, that’s just being a playwright.

I don’t believe the great works of art and literature are sacred. Why not let young people know that they can play with the classical canon – it’s their cultural heritage, to be enjoyed, recreated, questioned, discarded and pillaged – as generations of writers have done before them?

Purni Morell
Artistic director
Unicorn Theatre
London SE1


Producers scared off by true horror

I am the writer of the cancelled Horror Show (Review, Terror 2012 – All in the Mind, October 25, page 17). It was not withdrawn because “it wasn’t ready”.

The Parisian Grand Guignol staged recreations of murders and violence notorious for their levels of realism. They would sometimes portray murders recently reported in the news-papers. I was asked to produce a piece that reflected contemporary obsessions with depictions of violence – in particular, the craze for watching footage of real murders on the internet.

I wrote a play that used real footage, not of a murder but of people watching shocking and graphic material. I combined this with an actor onstage playing one of the murderers. The producers rejected my first draft and insisted on a new approach, so a second draft was submitted that tried to meet these requirements. When this revised piece was teched, the producers were still outraged. It was too shocking for them, and they insisted it was pulled.

I respect their opinions even if I don’t share them, but I am very annoyed that after delivering two completed drafts to deadline, the producers are now saying my play wasn’t ready.

Darren Ormandy
Email address supplied


West and Scales rightly rewarded

Well done The Stage for giving the award for outstanding contribution to British theatre to the highly respected and deserving Timothy West and Prunella Scales (The road less travelled, October 25, page 3).

They are always a pleasure to watch, particularly when they appear on our regional stages. I have also had the fortune to meet the good lady when she came to our local Everyman Theatre, and she was delightful.

For a similar theatrical team, my mind goes back to Dulcie Gray and her husband Michael Denison, who, in spite of their success in films, invariably made a long provincial tour before opening in the West End. Earlier, it would have been Sybil Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson, who toured the Welsh mining villages during the war.

How about a recognition in the honours list for West and Scales?

Tudor Williams
Brymore Close