The Orphan of Zhao: Inequality, Interculturalism and National Abjection in Casting

Well, I have been meaning to post about casting again and explain why it is so central to my research as a cultural geographer. But events have overtaken me, largely because rather than reflecting and analysing on casting practices for the purposes of academic debate, for the last two weeks I have been heavily involved in political protests over the casting of The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC. A daunting prospect to challenge the liberal establishment, a revered institution and one that, to be fair, has made strides in developing multicultural or ethnic-specific castings (as in the latest all black Julius Caesar and the all South Asian Much Ado About Nothing). However in this instance, the RSC has made a sore misjudgement.

For those of you who don’t know, The Orphan of Zhao is a classic revenge tragedy of the Chinese stage, often referred to as The Chinese Hamlet. You would think then, that it would be cast with East Asians? Wrong. There are only three East Asians in this cast out of a potential 17, two of whom are operating puppets, one of whom is playing the maid. The rationale for this is, according to Artistic Director and Director Gregory Doran, is that The Orphan of Zhao is being cast multiculturally in repertory with Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s Life of Galileo. What this response entirely fails to acknowledge is the unequal playing field on offer here: you can have white actors playing Chinese characters (one step away from yellowface) but not have (too many) East Asians in non-ethnic specific roles. Audiences, apparently, wouldn’t like that. Last week the black actor Danny Lee Wynter highlighted the same racial inequalities in The Stage (read HERE). Of course, the RSC suggested that ‘the play is Chinese, but the production isn’t.’ Yet this is a skewed logic when you use a small Chinese child in your marketing, have a taxpayer funded trip to China for research, actively court Chinese tourists, schoolchildren and Chinese audiences more widely with a Mandarin language campaign, and organise a one-day workshop for the paying public with a leading Chinese theatre academic on jingju (Beijing Opera).

I had written to Arts Council England to ask how this situation represented the case for diversity in the UK, I had lobbied journalists and media organisations to ask the RSC about their casting, and then with Anna Chen’s  ‘Two Dogs and a Maid’ piece (which you can read HERE) and ‘The Fairy Princess Diaries’ (HERE) it all blew up on twitter and Facebook. Eventually the RSC responded via their Press Office (see their Facebook thread HERE) and so did Doran when we eventually got the Guardian to write about the debacle (read HERE). Unfortunately his response only reinforced his position as a white man with great privilege.

Last Friday I tweeted that “I feel like the last 30 years of academic research + debate on intercultural theatre gone.down.the.drain @TheRSC #TheOrphanofZhao #impact?!” So I would like to explain what I meant when I said this, just to add an academic slant to the practices and debates that are in operation. I had recently finished writing an academic article about intercultural theatre and cultural space and in my mind The Orphan of Zhao seemed to have rewound about 30 years’ worth of academic work. I realized that whilst we may loathe the Higher Education ‘impact agenda’ – this is an instance of when we could (should?) have had more effect.

Intercultural theatre is quite simply when one culture seeks to engage with another through specific performance forms, practices, languages and aesthetics. Orphan reminds me of the Orientalist arguments surrounding the controversy of Peter Brook’s 9-hour stage version of The Mahabarata in 1985. Now Brook has always been interested in universal transcendence, in exploring the fact that we are a common humanity. However, like Orphan he didn’t take into account his own position and the power that accompanied it because of his view that we are all, supposedly, equal. Brook was heavily criticized for simplifying the Mahabarata, its characters and its plot, turning its meanings into something that was easily consumable and digestible for ‘western’ audiences. Rustom Bharucha in The Theatre and the World criticized Brook for downplaying caste, the core organizing principle of Indian society and for avoiding “a confrontation of the historical context of Indian culture” (232). In short, Brook’s decontextualisation of the Mahabarata was critiqued as being Orientalist and insensitive to its original context, something exacerbated by his position as a white British man. The problem with any kind of cross-cultural work is that there is a tendency to strip culture and signs of culture from source texts, and the international casting of Brook’s Mahabarata reinforced this problem because the casting raised questions around ‘can anyone portray Indian cultural figures?’ and ‘who owns culture?’

There is a slew of critical work on this production but intercultural theatre critics have since become highly sensitive to what forms of culture are used in theatrical enterprises, what the politics and ethics of a cross-cultural collaboration might be, of who is doing the representing, who is doing the talking and in which language, whose voices are and are not heard and how that fits into consumer demands. These are the kinds of questions that intercultural theatre has been dealing with for years and which are glossed over by the RSC’s stance regarding The Orphan of Zhao and its casting. It is clear that the rise of China economically is forcing us to engage with its culture and history – and of course the RSC are acutely aware of this as a marketing strategy as Anna Chen reminds us (see HERE). But while I’d like to think that there was real cultural engagement in operation on the part of the RSC, I have yet to find any evidence of it.

To begin with we have little idea what version of Orphan of Zhao James Fenton has adapted, how he came to it and what he is seeking to portray through it. Will there be Chinese movement in this production – is this why there is a workshop on jingju? Or is this contextualizing the play through a simple exoticism via an engagement with a culturally different form that bears little relevance to the actual production (after all, remember the RSC has said the production isn’t Chinese). If you read Doran’s blog on the week long research trip to China (yes, that’s one week) on the RSC website (HERE) it reads like a white man’s travelogue c.1850 and aside from the trip to the Shanghai Opera, I would love to know more about what the research was and how it’s going to be translated into the play. And which context are they researching anyway? That hugely diverse country called China? Or The Yuan dynasty? Or some generic ‘Chinese theatre’ practice? Intercultural theatre so often engages with difference for the sake of difference, and it seems the RSC may have fallen prey to this trap as such short periods of exploration frequently lead to superficiality because they prevent any real understanding of a play’s original context. Let’s not forget as well that white Brits are making the artistic translations on this production and aside from Dr. Li we have little idea of if and how anyone Chinese was consulted.

Of course, the casting is the main issue at stake here and we can’t conflate culture and race. But the casting is deeply offensive to the people that the play supposedly represents. In his response Gregory Doran called the outrage ‘sour grapes’ but this fails to recognize the issue of whose stories are being told and by whom – the central question of any critical cross-cultural work. As my friend Greg Watanabe wrote on the RSC thread “when large, well funded, prestigious theaters finally tell an Asian story and fail to use Asians, or British East Asians to tell that story, they have to try to understand how that feels to us. It feels like orientalism, like a minstrel show, like you think we’re not good enough to tell our own stories, that you would presume to tell our stories for us, dictate to us our culture and identity.”

Now I am all for multicultural casting, but the issue is one of opportunity. If East Asians in this country can’t get the opportunity to play ethnic specific parts written for them, then what roles can they play? They rarely play non-specific roles anyway because their faces literally don’t fit director expectations. Current casting practices at the RSC in particular are based on track record and networks. These things are hard to accumulate when you are consistently discriminated against because of your race. When the RSC suggest they chose the ‘best person for the role’ this can’t be taken at face value (no pun intended). Don’t believe for a second that they trawled the entire East Asian acting community for ‘lots and lots’ of actors. We know they didn’t. We know they picked people they already knew, all of whom are fantastic actors, but the RSC didn’t look beyond their own noses. So unlike the all-black Julius Ceasar where the RSC admirably went to great lengths to find an all-black cast, that wasn’t the case here. And the question remains why not? And if Orphan of Zhao is in repertory then why can’t East Asians play non-racially specific roles?

All of this leads me to a final point that East Asians in the UK exist in a state of national abjection. Abjection is a “an attempt to circumscribe and radically differentiate something that, although deemed repulsively other is, paradoxically, at some fundamental level, an undifferentiable part of the whole” (Shimakawa 2002, 2). So we bring something into visibility, into existence, whilst simultaneously repelling and expelling the object of our attraction. And so it is with East Asians in the UK – we are fond of finding out about Chinese cultures on film, in tv documentaries, in theatre, but these interests are nearly always mediated through white people and there is little interest in people of Chinese descent in our own country, people who are British Chinese. Such a sentiment evokes the spectre of ‘yellow peril’ and the resulting desire to expel Chinese bodies from sight, mind and shores. And so Chinese culture is becoming ever more visible in our everyday lives whilst making invisible those who may lay claim to it. The RSC debacle seems to encapsulate these contradictory dynamics.