The Orphan of Zhao Redux

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Daniel York

At the very heart of the RSC Orphan of Zhao controversy was the issue of ‘access’. Our theatrical ‘centres of excellence’ are still dominated to an almost exclusive degree by people of certain backgrounds with resources and funds available to them that are spectacularly out of reach to Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) practitioners generally and even more so to practitioners from East Asian backgrounds, the most marginalised of the lot, perennially forced into corners of exotic decoration and geo-political affirmation of notions of Western ‘superiority’.

I wanted to reflect this in the film we put together. The basic story of The Orphan of Zhao revolves round an innocent child who loses his entire family and identity and is compelled by circumstance into the role of bloody revenger. For British East Asians this has a certain resonance (though not as ‘bloody’, thankfully!). We are nominally ‘British’. We can fight in our country’s wars (if we choose) and die for the ‘realm’. But we are continually denied (and often by our own diffidence) any substantial visual or media presence. As East Asian actors it often appears that we must accept ghastly stereotypes as our ‘lot’ as well as the conceptual belief that we are intrinsically ‘inferior’ (the notion that that ‘there aren’t any good East Asian actors’ is almost an industry mantra behind closed doors).

I was also fascinated by the ‘cultural heritage’ that the casting of the play locked us out of. I can distinctly remember when I left drama school in 1990 a whole debate was raging then about whether actors of colour could perform leading roles in Shakespeare. One well-known theatre director actually argued that black people would struggle with Shakespeare because it ‘was not part of their heritage’. Although this is obviously no longer voiced, it does still seem to be an attitude that prevails, and indeed the ‘East Asian classical actor’ is a concept that simply doesn’t exist.  So when a project like The Orphan of Zhao comes along we can surely be forgiven for thinking ‘here is a piece that we have symbiotic relationship with’. After all, we would often be told that there were no ‘Chinese people’ in Noel Coward’s world, that we have to be as ‘authentic’ as possible in order to be cast, that there would need to be a ‘reason’ justifying our presence in a drama. Paradoxically though, a play as old as Orphan, passed down the generations so many times, is in many ways up for grabs, and I endeavoured to reflect this by pulling sections from as varied a selection of sources as I could including from my own pen.

I wanted to make this little meditation on the play that was once The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao as tough and modern as I could — in stark contrast to the RSC who, from what I can gather from production photographs and written accounts, seemed in terms of design and costume to be focused on recreating a traditional ‘Chinese’ setting despite protestations they would be presenting the play in their ‘own way’ (no criticism intended-aside from the casting!)

It was my intention that every actor in the film would occupy their own ‘niche’ in the narrative and they were cast accordingly to this end.   I hoped this casting would reflect the sheer diversity of British East Asian actors normally reduced to basic archetypes of uber ‘Chinese’ or ‘Japanese’. I also wanted to empower them to find their own style and relationship with the text they were given. It’s important to remember that the mainly white, mainly middle-class performers at the fulcrum of British classical theatre are seen in a context where every single resource is working to ensure an almost effortless looking ‘superiority’. The sets and costumes are expensive, the spaces they inhabit are impressive before anyone has even occupied the stage, the rehearsal periods are longer, the voice and movement coaching top-notch and the material they work on of the very highest quality. I wanted to make it clear that, given the equivalent context, we (British East Asian artists) could ‘compete’ (as opposed to requiring some nefarious notion of ‘positive discrimination’).

Finally in my own writing and the adaptation I wanted to attempt something that would speak about China then, now and in the future. China. It is often seen as a huge, monolithic, fixed entity (a notion debunked by writer Ben Chu in his recent book Chinese Whispers), but is in fact a vast and diverse nebulous melting pot in an almost constant state of flux, sometimes violent, and it often seems to be screaming in agony at the enormous and mercurial changes it is perpetually undergoing. Virtually every performer in the film has roots in China. If not, the geography of their heritage exists in direct relation to the Middle Kingdom. And here we all are. In all our glorious diversity.

I get the impression the RSC would like to forget The Orphan of Zhao ever happened. This is entirely understandable. It must indeed be frustrating when all the strides the company had made in terms of diverse casting are thrown into question by an unseemly blot in the copy book. Many East Asians similarly dislike dwelling on the past, particularly with regards to anything deemed unpleasant and which causes anyone to lose face. I firmly believe, however, that we must all remember The Orphan of Zhao. The great civil rights writer bell hooks talks of change becoming attainable by the act of not forgetting. We should not forget.


Daniel York is of mixed Singapore and British heritage and grew up in the UK, where he works as an actor, writer, and director. As an actor he has appeared at the National Theatre, Royal Court, RSC, Edinburgh Traverse, and Hampstead Theatre, as well as extensively in Singapore. His short film, Mercutio’s Dreaming:The Killing Of A Chinese Actor, was nominated for four awards at the World Independent Music & Film Festival. His full-length play, The Fu Manchu Complex, was produced at Ovalhouse in 2013.

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