This special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review (24.4) explores the controversy surrounding the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) casting of ‘three Asian actors, three mixed race actors, ten Caucasian actors and one Arab actor’ in their 2012-13 production of the thirteenth-century Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao. In the Introduction to the Issue, we pose a series of questions that seem to us to lie at the heart of the controversy: who has a stake in intercultural practice, and on whose terms is it conceived? Can a particular group or individual claim ownership over performance concerning a locality, a tradition, or a form, and what happens if they do?
When we were commissioned to produce materials for the journal’s online Interventions, we considered how we might use the website to explore the implications of these questions in different contexts, and through different visual media. Ashley Thorpe wrote a piece about the marketing of The Orphan of Zhao, something that he saw as central to creating expectations about the production’s casting. By using an image of a young Chinese boy in its publicity, The Orphan of Zhao seemed to imply that there might be opportunities for British East Asian actors to be centrally involved in the production, an expectation that was not fulfilled. Building on Amanda Rogers’ article, which explores whether or not The Orphan of Zhao could be seen as a contemporary example of yellowface, we made a request to the poet and performer Anna Chen to use a video performance of her poem Yellowface. In it, she provides a biting critique of those power dynamics that allow yellowface to persist, reproducing marginalisation and discrimination against those of East Asian descent. Finally, we asked Daphne Lei to write about her recent talk at, and viewing of, the ACT/La Jolla Playhouse production of The Orphan of Zhao in the US as it provided an interesting point of comparison. Would a cast consisting of only Asian American actors make a difference to the performance? Would an all-Asian American cast authenticate the significance of race to this ‘Chinese’ play?
Despite these interventions, we were left feeling that there was a creative and critical gap still to be filled. We started bouncing ideas off one another in a quick-fire email exchange about creating some kind of film that investigated questions of cultural ownership and authentic casting. Something playful. Maybe done in Chinese Opera style? Perhaps we should interview British East Asians about their acting experiences? But this already appears in the Special Issue. Maybe we should create an audition tape where we ask British East Asian actors to read different speeches from The Orphan of Zhao, film them, and then we edit them together?
This last idea proved to be our light bulb moment. We considered that the production of such a piece had significant implications. Firstly, it could illustrate the depth and range of talent among the British East Asian acting community. Secondly, it could challenge the commonly expressed idea that ‘there aren’t enough [good] British East Asian actors’ as a way to legitimise existing casting practices in contemporary British theatre, film and television. Thirdly, it could visually represent the diversity of the British East Asian community, thereby questioning the assumption that all East Asians look alike, and, more specifically, that they all look Chinese. Fourthly, it could raise questions around whether an all-British East Asian cast evinces stereotypical and reductive readings of the significance of race. Could a version of The Orphan of Zhao made by an all-British East Asian cast reflexively draw attention to the significance of their presence and absence in the RSC’s production of The Orphan of Zhao?
We then approached the actor, writer and director Daniel York to see if he would be interested in creating such a work. Daniel was at the heart of The Orphan of Zhao controversy, speaking out against the RSC after being the only British East Asian actor to be almost cast in a leading role in the production. Daniel took the idea, ran with it, and made it his own, assembling the cast, crew, space, equipment, editors and sound designers. We initially thought of simply using James Fenton’s text, and, indeed, secured permission to use it. In the interim, however, and through discussions with us, Daniel also thought of all the other adaptations of The Orphan of Zhao that had been created historically. We did not want to hold James Fenton up as the only European author to have adapted the text, but to highlight that the work had been adapted (some might say appropriated) from the eighteenth century onwards. As a result, we helped Daniel source different versions of the play text in English, including translations of Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1674-1743) and Voltaire (1694-1778), and adaptations by William Hatchett (fl. 1730-1741) and Arthur Murphy (1727-1805). He then selected speeches, sometimes simply lines, from the different texts and compiled them together into the script, also developing and using his own adaptations.
The film, The Orphan of Zhao Redux, is the result of this process.
– Amanda Rogers and Ashley Thorpe, co-editors of this Special Issue