Review: The Orphan of Zhao

En route to the family Christmas, the time came when I finally entered the hallowed (and somewhat cramped, given the £112.8m refurbishment) halls of the RSC to see the play I had been campaigning about. I had to see if it was better, or worse, than I imagined, plus the fact that come April I will be writing about the transnational protests surrounding it for my book, as long as the publisher agrees. If not, Antipode beckons. Therefore I have to see it and form my own opinion.

The Orphan of Zhao is a revenge tragedy. There are many versions of the story, but effectively, a wanton Emperor comes under the increasing influence of one of his most powerful and power-hungry courtiers (Tu’an Gu), a man who feeds the Emperor’s baser instincts. When, at Tu’an Gu’s encouragement, the emperor starts killing his own people by firing arrows into a crowd, another minister (Zhao Dun) protests, and is executed for speaking out. Zhao Dun’s wife, the Emperor’s daughter, gives birth to a son shortly afterwards, but Tu’an Gu has declared Zhao a traitor and ordered that every member of the Zhao clan be massacred. With the child at risk, Zhao’s wife gives the baby to a country doctor who smuggles him out of the city. When the escape is discovered, an order is sent out for all new-born children to be executed. The doctor also has a new baby, but without realising, has placed himself in an impossible position: all children must die, or he can swop the titular orphan with his son, claim that he knows where the missing Zhao boy is, and sacrifice his own child to prevent the deaths of countless others. With the aid of a retired courtier who was a friend of Zhao Dun, this is what duly happens. The doctor raises the Orphan of Zhao as his own child at court, with everyone unaware of the Orphan’s true identity. When the Emperor starts to die, the 18-year-old Orphan undertakes a mission for his adopted father, the plot unravelling towards the discovery of his true identity and his revenge killing of Tu’an Gu.

The story itself is engaging but I was unconvinced by Fenton’s adaptation of it. Many of the critics praised his poetic language, and whilst Fenton is an admirable poet, for me this didn’t ring true. Often I found the script clunky, and at times the exposition seemed to drag. The best word I can describe it as is ‘stagey’ with some characters entering on stage and introducing themselves to the audience by saying ‘I am x.y.z’. However I couldn’t work out the logic for those who did this, those who did multiple times, and those who never introduced themselves. Time to buy the playbook then. I also expected the first act to end a scene earlier so that there was a clear younger orphan/older orphan division but my suspicion is that the script is written as a series of scenes, rather than as acts. So yes, it is all written and performed Brechtian style, but it was patchily executed.

The production values of The Orphan of Zhao were also very high: it looked good, it was well directed and for the most part it was well acted (although the doctor wasn’t always convincing, particularly when it came to deciding to swap the children and sacrifice his son – the script made it all too easy and neither the doctor nor his wife seemed to feel much resistance). Aesthetically, the Chinoiserie in some of the costuming, particularly the military Chinese-warrior inspired costumes, did make the production look as though white people were dressing up. And despite what some critics suggested, I saw no evidence of any form of Chinese movement or acting style. On reflection I do feel that Doran’s research trip to China was more about networking for the future rather than directly feeding into this particular play. The research for The Orphan of Zhao – the period, the dress, the setting, could have been done in this country given the production that’s been created. But the audience seemed to love it with the woman on the bus back to the car saying that she thought it was the ‘best thing I’ve seen all year.’

So where’s the rub?

The debate with The Orphan of Zhao was always with the casting, with both the lack of East Asian actors and the types of opportunities being offered. Although many critics said that they felt the production would have benefitted from more East Asians actors, they never said why. Here’s why.

To start, the RSC made a big fuss about this being one of few Chinese plays to ever be staged in Britain. So, when in the opening of the performance all the characters lined up on stage and walked down to the audience, the thing I saw, felt, at once, was a wall of white men. Although this was a 6/17 multiculti cast, by placing the three white advisors upfront in their coloured Chinese robes everyone else faded into the distance. Then, down towards the back were, of course, the East Asian actors carrying their spears. The RSC ‘ethnic’ spear carrier is one of the oldest and most famed acting stereotypes and it was there in all its glory. But it had resounding implications for the rest of the play. In her review (here) Anna Chen noted that the ethnic actors (including black as well as East Asian actors) were all servants looking on as the white actors performed the main scenes, and for the most part this was how the play read.

During the furore, the RSC tried to absolve itself by suggesting that the Princess’s Maid, Susan Momoko Hingley, had a pivotal role in the production because she sacrificed herself to help save the Orphan child. In reality, this was not a protagonist role. By protagonist I mean someone who drives the action of the play. People may disagree with me, but the scene where she dies trying to cover up the child’s whereabouts is entirely reactionary, because she has to respond both to Tu’an Gu’s questioning and to the Doctor’s plans. Her plans, her stories, her lies, fail. And so her attempt to influence the direction of the story is simply a small cog in the wider machine of men. Her actions have zero impact on what happens next. Hingley herself was good but she died just too darn quick. And although that’s part of the story, it reminded me of yet another stereotype. Similarly, I really liked the demon mastiff puppet dog, according to the RSC another demonstration of how skilled the ‘ethnic’ or ‘East Asian’ actors were, but its presence on stage left as fast as it came. The problem with all of this is that if you don’t cast East Asians as protagonists they are left to scoop up all the bit parts, which only leads to stereotyping. For me, the most problematic of these moments was when there were babies and horses on stage. For instance, when the Doctor persuaded his wife to give up their child, the two babies were held by the actors but in diagonally opposite corners sat Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Siu Hun Li making the gurgling and crying sounds. Similarly, when Tu’an Gu was riding, he literally held Hoi and Li by the ropes as they acted as horses. Now as sound effects go, these were pretty amazing, but these moments were distinctly problematic, because they hark back to all those old stereotypes of Chinese as dogs, as animals, as unhuman or subhuman. Or in colonial parlance, as children needing guidance. You could have had black and Asian actors, or white and Asian actors, or black and white actors doing the same thing, but because of how it was cast, it was two East Asians. So to me, the casting and the direction was a bit naïve. Whilst the RSC may have thought it was being liberal in creating a multicultural cast across three plays, the implications of the casting choices in terms of the overall arc and direction of the production were sometimes deeply problematic.

Of course, the final scene with Hoi as the Doctor’s grown up ghost child, has been feted as one of the most moving in the play. The moment when he realised that his father loved him dearly even as he was sacrificed. And indeed it was moving, which only served to highlight that East Asians can be more than babies, spear carriers and puppet masters. They have, and can portray humanity.

Here’s the real rub though: if audiences love the production, if critics such as Dominic Cavendish can openly say on twitter “yes and no” in response to the question “did you enjoy the Asian babies and horses and didn’t you find that problematic?” then the casting of this production only serves to reinforce societal assumptions about Chinese identity through its use of East Asian actors. Many East Asian writers, actors, directors and theatre companies are working against these images, or trying to. Many vaunt the potential of theatre to provide alternatives that are living and live. Many hope that what is seen on stage will filter into the public consciousness so that maybe the next time someone from the audience meets someone East Asian, they will be more open towards them, they will check their own expectations. And so if the RSC can come along and call this production progressive, if audiences aren’t confronted by an alternative, then the uphill battle really is graver than imagined.