The UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company has come under fire for it’s casting choices in the upcoming production of The Orphan of Zhao.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming production of The Orphan of Zhao has been criticised for the lack of actors with East Asian heritage appearing in the play. Of the ensemble cast of 17, only 3 actors have East Asian heritage, two of whom will perform with puppets as a dog and one who plays a maid. The 13th-Century classic Chinese drama has been adapted by poet and playwright James Fenton and will be directed by the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran. In a Facebook post made to quell the feud, the RSC said that its casting decision was heavily influenced by the fact that the ensemble were cross-cast over a three-play season that includes new adaptations of Pushkin and Brecht. The post also explained that the RSC, ‘are always aiming to reflect the diverse population of the UK on our stages and we make considerable efforts to audition actors from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds…We cast the best people available for the range of roles required.’ Doran justified the decision further, telling The Guardian, ‘The RSC have led the way in non-culturally specific casting, but there was no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays.’ In a later post, signed by both Doran and the RSC's Executive Director Catherine Mallyon, the RSC said, 'We intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare. Having absorbed something of Chinese conventions and dramatic idioms, we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality.' Paul Courtenay Hyu, an actor who has worked at the National theatre and Birmingham Repertory, called the decision ‘an incredible, gob-smacking episode. They have an all-black Julius Caesar and an all-Indian Much Ado, but when they decide to do the Chinese Hamlet, they cast 14 out of 17 actors and all of the major parts as non-Chinese. In the 21st century that’s unbelievable.’ Writer and performer Anna Chen was less than impressed with the decision, worrying that '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.' Doran said, ‘I look at as many actors as I can, and choose not on ethnicity but the best actor for that role. That’s the only way to do it. I have to say, partly, it feels a bit like sour grapes.’ Hyu doesn’t think this applies to everyone, ‘why does colourblind casting not apply to us? It applied to black or south Asian actors. Blacks can play white, whites black and Asian but Chinese can’t. The rules don’t apply to us.’ British-Chinese actor Daniel York told The Guardian that he believes the problem runs deeper, ‘The whole industry is kind of reluctant to cast East Asians in non-race specific roles. We are generally only thought of as the Chinese takeaway man or the Japanese businessman. It’s incredibly hard for an East Asian person to build up the track record that would enable the RSC to feel confident in casting them in a decent role. We’re not on the radar because we’re not working very much.’ Martin Brown, an Equity spokesperson, said, ‘Equity is calling for an industry-wide debate on the casting situation for east Asian actors involving artistic directors of major subsidised theatres, Arts Council England, Skillset and the Theatre Management Association.’ Doran admitted that there are changes that need to be made to industry attitudes, as ‘it really echoes what was happening with black actors in the 1970s and 80s. They need to have these opportunities. They need, therefore, the visibility. That will attract more of their number into the profession. It’s important that the RSC continues to lead the way in that process.’ Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding RSC casting decisions follows last week’s news that playwright Bruce Norrispulled the rights to a production of his play Clybourne Park by a German theatre company after hearing that they were set to employ a white actress in blackface. Norris revealed in an open letter to the Dramatist’s Guild of America that the company could ‘see no logical reason why we should cast an “Afro-German”’ in the Pulitzer prize-winning play about latent racial tensions and gentrification in the suburbs of Chicago. ‘After much evasion, justification and rationalizing of their reasons, they finally informed me that the colour of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to “experiment with makeup”. At this point, I retracted the rights to the production,’ the letter continues.
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