Memo to the RSC: east Asians can be more than just dogs and maids - Anna Chen
October 22, 2012
The Royal Shakespeare Company's casting for The Orphan of Zhao seems to hark back to an age of British imperialism
One of the dogs in a rehearsal for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Orphan of Zhao. Photograph: Kwame Lestrade. Photograph: Kwame Lestrade
It's no fun being bred out of the cultural gene pool. Watching TV, theatre or film, I'm on constant alert for a glimpse of someone who looks Chinese, for the slightest resemblance to an estimated 499,999 others like me living in the UK.
Barring Gok Wan, scientist Kevin Fong and the odd TV chef, UK Chinese are virtually absent from mainstream media. So it was with a sense of "here we go again" that we learned that the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is mounting the classic play The Orphan of Zhao in the way prize trophies usually get mounted: gutted and stuffed. This 13th-century Yuan-dynasty masterpiece may be the first Chinese play, to make it to the hallowed RSC, but the only parts given to actors of east Asian heritage are two dogs. And a maid-servant. Who dies. Tragically.
Yes, out of 17 roles in the classic known to Eurocentrics as "the Chinese Hamlet", a grand total of three have gone to Asians. Another dog is played by a black actor, making you wonder exactly what the RSC is trying to say.
All director Gregory Doran came up with is that the blizzard of complaints is a case of "sour grapes", and that the critics should "get real"; not the most eloquent response you might expect from the intellectual heavyweight described as "one of the finest Shakespeareans of his generation". Any finer, and he might appreciate why casting Asians as dogs and a maid – the latter dying in the most tiresome Madame Butterfly tradition – might elicit consternation. Quite rightly, "blackface" was long ago laughed out of court on the grounds that it not only challenges credulity but is also both ludicrous and demeaning to all parties concerned. Yellowface, however, apparently remains acceptable and credible. Why?
Had Doran remembered the lessons learned by director Peter Brook when he cast a range of ethnicities in his well-intentioned 1980s film and stage adaptations of the Indian epic Mahabharata and was forced to face his own ideological assumptions in the ensuing row, he might have trodden more sensitively instead of crashing in like a 19th-century colonialist after our tea and silks.
Only last year in the US, La Jolla Playhouse felt compelled to hold a public debate after it was caught having cast a mere two of the roles in the Chinese story, The Nightingale, as Asian, and one of them was a bird.
Cheekily, the RSC targets Chinese audiences (and their growing disposable wealth) in their marketing – with adverts in Chinese and a poster featuring a Chinese kid who looks nothing like the actors playing the main roles in the show – so we know it can make the effort when it wants to. Playwright David Henry Hwang of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition which fought in the Nightingale battle, says: "By producing The Orphan of Zhao, the RSC seeks to exploit the public's growing interest in China; through its casting choices, the company reveals that its commitment to Asia is self-serving, and only skin-deep."
Once again: why? The RSC casting is something of a litmus test, indicating how a failing superpower asserts its cultural dominance when its economic base is disintegrating. It may no longer operate under cold war rules to consciously exclude representations of the upstart Chinese, or feel pressured to depict us as Fu Manchu monstrosities (except for the hideously backward BBC Sherlock episode The Blind Banker, replete with oriental lowlifes and lotus blossoms). But, as George Orwell pointed out, you don't need a whipped dog when a well-trained one will do.
Such minds are hard-wired to eliminate an entire group's cultural representation, and they don't even realise it. Amanda Rogers of Swansea University, says: "As a national company they have a responsibility to represent all sectors of British society. There is a real paucity of east Asian representation in this country, and when we do see it, it is usually confined to minor or stereotypical roles."
One danger is that, the more a minority is presented as a blank canvas, the easier it is to project all sorts of rubbish on to it.
It's a shame that James Fenton, with his progressive track record, allows his adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao to be cast along colonialist lines. As a component of the establishment's entertainment wing shaping our perceptions and feelings, the RSC continues to airbrush us out of the picture, ready to be re-inserted into the frame only when villains are required. Whipped dog, well-trained one or puppet: you have to ask the old question: cui bonio?