RSC Orphan of Zhao: US statement, Front Row interview and RSC education course

So what’s new, pussycat? Apart from the Royal Shakespeare Company being engaged robustly on their thread concerning the casting of The Orphan of Zhao.

Seems the RSC has hired a Chinese academic from Leeds University to give a one-day course for Sixth Form and Undergraduate students on a play whose first British production writes out Chinese people.

Ironically, the course looks at: “… the ideas of sacrifice, friendship, bravery, justice and evil embedded in this revenge play.”

I hope that Dr Li will reconsider her involvement now that these issues have been raised. Is it acceptable to teach young theatre audiences to accept their own invisibility, collude in their own exclusion or accept the elimination of their classmates and friends in the culture? These might make interesting topics for course participants to ponder.

Elsewhere, US playwright David Henry Hwang of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has issued this statement on the production:

“The ORPHAN OF ZHAO casting controversy says less about Britain’s Asian acting community, that it does about the RSC’s laziness and lack of artistic integrity. Early in my career, when I wrote Asian characters, production teams in America often had to expend extra effort to find Asian actors to play them. Yet they did so, both to maintain artistic authenticity and to provide opportunities for actors who are virtually never allowed to even audition for ‘white’ roles. 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 only skin-deep.”

Anglo-Chinese actor and Equity BAME rep Daniel York gave a sterling performance on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row (about 13 minutes in) on Friday. Gregory Doran was less impressive, being quite evasive about whether he’d cast a white person as black African.

For overseas friends who can’t listen to iPlayer, I’ve transcribed most of Doran’s interview.

Greg Doran: We adopt a policy of non-culturally specific casting … cast the best actor in the roles.

Interviewer asks if they were doing a Nigerian Yoruba mythology play alongside Pushkin and Brecht, would you ever consider casting a white caucasian person in one of those Nigerian roles?

GD: It would be a very specific case if I was doing them as part of a season. If I was doing Death & the King’s Horseman in a particular way then I might consider that in the way that Rufus Norris at the National had some of the black actors white up to play certain other parts. So, no, if I was doing a specific Chinese play in a Chinese context the Miss Saigon theory would apply and I wouldn’t necessarily want to be casting a white actor if it was a race-specific role.

Interviewer asks about accusations of not casting east Asians in the lead roles.

GD: No, that’s not the case. I’ve heard this bandied around that we cast them as maids and dogs. Well, there is a character called “The Maid”. She is one of the eight righteous people who protect the Orphan of Zhao in the way that Malvolio is a servant. I suppose you could say that. The Maid is one of the main characters, and indeed, the three Asian actors specific to this production do an awful lot of things throughout the show including at one point play a demon mastiff which is a highly skilled piece of puppetry which two of them are engaged and involved in.

I found the mention of the Rufus Norris play a tad misleading. Luckily, I saw Death and the King’s Horseman at the National. It was utterly brilliant and dealt with issues of colonialist dominance and the nature of man, so the whiting up was a powerful tool — Brechtian alienation actually making a point — and not the mere convenience that the Orphan of Zhao casting is. Also, the casting allowed a multitude of black actors to take to the stage — they were phenomenal!

First response last Wednesday from me and actress Lucy Sheen: 3/17, dog and maid.

My article on the RSC The Orphan of Zhao casting now up at the Guardian website.

My review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.

Review by academic Amanda Rogers.

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

2 thoughts on “RSC Orphan of Zhao: US statement, Front Row interview and RSC education course”

  1. We found the reference to a 'Miss Saigon' theory pretty astonishing given the controversy which Cameron Mackintosh caused when he insisted on getting Jonathan Pryce to 'yellow up' on broadway for his role as the engineer in said musical. Seems like its the same old excuses over and over again and it seems to show how little thought has gone into the process.

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