Category Archives: Reviews

Let’s See What Happens…..

Artists from Swansea try to collaborate with artists from China. Over many years and several (failed) attempts. Dealing with bureaucracy. Trying to find Chinese artists to collaborate with. How do you even meet artists in China, when you are sat in a boardroom with gallery owners? These are some of the problems that beset the Glynn Vivian’s attempts to facilitate Welsh-Chinese art relations. The result was 3 artists from China (especially Xiamen) and 4 artists from Wales not collaborating overtly on work, but living together, talking to one another, visiting each other’s countries to create their own work, or cross cultural engagement. This was a wonderful exhibition that was, I think, aided by the fact that the Glynn Vivian is closed and the exhibition venues were dispersed off-site across multiple sites, in buildings that gave greater resonance to many of the works presented.

I hope to write about this exhibition because rarely have I come out of an exhibition feeling that it was so incredibly geographical. I don’t usually wax lyrical about such things, but every piece was just rich and complex spatially. Just a few images and examples:

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The Fu Manchu Complex

The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York at the Ovalhouse in London: the first full staging of a brand spanking new British East Asian play for how long? (I think 5 years since Yellow Earth Theatre’s Running the Silk Road). I’ve been waiting – watching various readings, seeing the short plays and now voila! Bona fide production! Hurrah! Even if you don’t read any more of what I have to say: go see it! It’s really good fun!

The Fu Manchu Complex is a satire on incredibly persistent stereotypes of the Chinese – stereotypes that permeate society, attaching themselves to anyone of British East Asian descent, and indeed, to most stories about contemporary China. Dr Fu Manchu is the greatest “Oriental” villain ever created: sinister, lithe, ruthless, cunning, slipppery, intelligent, the mastermind criminal of Sax Rohmer’s imagination. In the novels Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie are constantly thwarted by him, as just when Fu Manchu is cornered, he always manages to escape at the very last moment. Fu Manchu is the ultimate villain who can match, and supersede, the intelligence of white British men, and thus epitomises the Yellow Peril stereotype. He is the Chinese man the West fears but cannot know.

Set in late Victorian/early Edwardian Britain, The Fu Manchu Complex parodies the novels, with Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie brilliantly played as plummy and camp by Paul Chan and Andrew Koji. It has to be said that their comic timing is excellent and the physicality of Koji’s performance ramps up the ridicule of Imperial Britain’s “great, white men”. Smith realises that Fu Manchu has captured the colonialists and developed a serum that manages to turn them into Chinese people. Becoming this subhuman group is, of course, the ultimate kick against the horror and revulsion associated with attitudes to the Chinese – in this era especially.

The play debunks a whole series of stereotypes with its ironic humour, from the inability for minority groups to be perceived as British, the mis-reading of ethnicity, the disgust towards anything different, the use of white masks taken off when the characters become “assimilated” into a dominant culture. Yet the excessive performativity of the actors in playing the stereotypes is one of the key ways that the production gains a critical edge. This is not ‘straight up’ performance, it is knowingly tongue-in-cheek, with the racial pretence emphasised to destabilise the stereotypes in operation. When lines from Rohmer’s novels appear – not least in the infamous description of Fu Manchu himself – their racism and ridiculousness is made apparant. Fu Manchu’s revelation to the audience as a towering figure, glaringly pantomime, makes it hard to take this villain seriously. Indeed, the fact that these characters are played by British East Asians (of all stripes) only adds to the mockery of popular and degrading imagery. The play’s contextual setting also side-steps the exoticism often imposed onto China, Chinese characters or British East Asians by rooting itself in the Vaudeville music hall/Victorian BRITAIN (neatly illustrated by the staging, with its gilded frame and gas uplighting). BEA actors in period settings – another swipe in itself. (By the way, with Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge, wouldn’t it be great to – oh I don’t know – have the biggest film star and most erudite woman of that time, ANNA MAY WONG appear, alongside the black jazz singers?)

I laughed and thought it was fun, although many mainstream reviewers seemed to have missed the point see (here) and (here). It isn’t perfect, it has a structural style and a point it repeatedly plays with and both run out of steam a little towards the end. However, I think it is a production that everyone needs to see to be reminded of the politics of racial stereotyping, and if you aren’t BEA, to be able to laugh at ourselves, because isn’t that one of the things the Brits are good at? It reminded me a lot of Sung Rno’s work and racial humour from a Korean American perspective and the audience had that same ‘laughter of recognition’ as Dorinne Kondo calls it in About Face. And for BEAs, I think this is landmark, for precisely that reason – they get the joke, and importantly that joke is on the dominant perceptions and structures that condition their mainstream theatrical representation. It is validating. And that is hugely important.

Prior to the performance I saw, Lucy Sheen and BEAA organised a panel discussion on ‘How do we move away from exotic curio to become integrated into British theatre?’ This was a really interesting event that considered the differences between British East Asians and their Black or South Asian counterparts, and discussed if the same routes should be followed. There was a panel of 6 speakers, poetry performances from Anna Chen (including the wonderful Anna May Wong Must Die!) and a public discussion chaired by me: Paul Hyu discussed his proposal to Equity that all EA parts should be played by EA actors, anticipating the possibility of yellow face in Miss Saigon, Dr Diana Yeh discussed the problems surrounding emerging hierarchies of racism and the multiple experiences and histories of racism and migration, Sonny Leong of Chinese for Labour said we all need to write to our MPs and lobby arts institutions and organisations, Jennifer Lim discussed self producing, Justin Audibert (the director of Fu Manchu Complex) discussed Black British theatre and  supported Paul’s ideas and I had my own little ramblings too. This has been filmed and no doubt placed somewhere on line….

Much is happening in the BEA sector at present, lots of plays, including this home-grown one, EA mixed race audition days, the next round of new writing Dim Sum Nights…. onwards onwards. For anyone interested, I’ve pasted my 4 min speech for the panel below.  Please quote me properly if you use it and remember it’s a stimulus to discussion:

The purpose of the debate is to discuss the idea and the reality of diversity, social and cultural inclusion for British East Asians in the arts and why unlike their colleagues of Black African-Caribbean or South Asian heritage, East Asians have not achieved similar recognition and visibility. Why are East Asians still subject to such demeaning and racist practices as Yellow Face?

I want to preface my comments by highlighting that many Black and South Asian artists still feel discriminated against and that there is some way to go in terms of equal representation. However, why haven’t British East Asians achieved similar levels of recognition and visibility?

Four things:

1) Black artists in particular speak out. We all see regular features where prominent practitioners discuss experiencing a lack of opportunities, being asked to perform stereotypes. This discussion is being held in a public way by leading figures. Since the Orphan of Zhao, this is starting to occur more and more now for East Asians. I think that is all to the good because there needs to be more social awareness and argumentation – which I will come to more in a minute.

2) That brings me to my second point which is that Black and South Asians work collectively. Idris Elba said he didn’t want to be the only black guy in Luther. So there is a collective agenda to help each other – if you know someone who could do a great artistic job from your own community or who needs a break, you suggest them. Asian Americans have been good at doing this as well in terms of giving each other opportunities. I know that this does happen, but it has to be for everyone.

3) Relatedly, thirdly, I feel that there is a real need to create a British East Asian voice and that will intrinsically be diverse. Black and South Asian communities have provided their own opportunities and their own image. You can question the extent to which that has actually worked and the types of representations that’s always produced, but on the other hand BEAs certainly couldn’t have the equivalent of Walk In The Light at the National. I worry about what happens when the mainstream has had its fling with China? Keep using Asian American works? The current swathe of plays is great – but is it a stepping stone to something else, or are those plays simply keeping EAs in the box? I also think there needs to be multiple avenues or outlets because it’s hard to support or serve everyone’s artistic orientation so it can’t just be the mainstream, it can’t just be the ethnic specific theatres. The other thing is that socially and politically, multiculturalism is losing currency as an idea, it’s said to be dying, but I think that might create opportunity to make the BEA theatre landscape really varied.

4) Finally, British East Asians need a popular and academic discourse. The Black and SA communities benefitted from the fact that their presence helped instigate the idea of multiculturalism, whereas now EAs are coming into prominence at a time when multiculturalism is on the wane. Black and South Asians shaped our understandings of race and multiculturalism in Britain, and wrote themselves into the social fabric in the process – famously the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham with people like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy There Ain’t No Black…. Kobena Mercer, Angela McRobbie, as well as Lord Parekh’s report on Multiculturalism in Britain – these people created the discourse. Do those narratives automatically apply to British East Asians? I am on the fence, but BEAs need that wider cultural discourse too, popularly and academically, that needs writing and it’s a joint responsibility. It’s noticeable that there are literally a handful of articles on BEA theatre and many are focused on the same productions (YET’s Lear) so it is a self perpetuating circle that needs breaking.

China on my Mind

I haven’t blogged much recently, as it’s marking term. However, I have seen a number of ‘China plays’ (as I like to call them) in London but I have wanted to think about the connections between them, or rather, to wait and see if there were any connections between them.

I write, in part, about British East Asian theatre and its transnational dynamics. Now, what is British East Asian theatre? I would generally say something written, produced, staged by or involving, British East Asian practitioners. Hampstead Theatre has just staged #aiww: The arrest of Ai Weiwei by Howard Brenton with an all male East Asian cast, and now the Almeida is trying its hand with Chimerica. But to my mind these are not really part of British East Asian theatre, because although they involve BEA actors, the production, the staging, the direction and most importantly, the perspective – especially the writing – is not.

The first thing to say is that the actors in both of these productions do a stellar job and so I always hate to criticise a play when there is talent on display. But I think that the British stage is really struggling to come to grips with China. It is like they are rushing along head first to jump on the bandwagon but in the process haven’t really thought through what they are doing – or in fact – saying.

Firstly, Brenton’s #aiww. Well it does what it says on the tin – it is a play about the 81 day detention of Ai Weiwei by Chinese officials in April 2011 based on the account he gave to the writer Barnaby Martin in his book Hanging Man. The play consists of a series of interrogations which by turns are humiliating, scary and funny. Gradually Ai Weiwei’s captors warm to him as they discuss ‘what is art?’ and they see the folly of the state’s attempts to detain him. Benedict Wong stood out in the title role and captured all the nuances of this modern artist-come-activist hero, his situation and the different ways in which he is perceived.

Yet as I sat there watching, I got the creeping sense that I was being preached to. I quite liked the thematic discussion about ‘what is art?’, but the whole production became more propagandistic, unsurprising given its source material. It appealed to the left by celebrating, and reinforcing, Ai Weiwei’s iconic status as an artist but also as the thorn in the side of the Chinese government. He has become almost better known for his stance against the Chinese state, its censorship and its human rights issues than his art. And I felt that this production showed me very little about him, his motivations or his artistic work (ok, a brief mention of all art is open to interpretation, but that’s it). It was almost as if Brenton had played into Ai Weiwei’s hands to create his greatest work yet. None of the criticisms of the Chinese state are to be denied, nor the injustice of Ai’s continued house arrest, but it was a one-dimensional view. David Tse did a great job as a smarmy politician fencing with Ai Weiwei’s status in Europe, censorship in a twitter age, and his stitch up over tax evasion. Yet the ‘Chinese state’ appeared puppet like, in the background, directing (and indeed surveilling) everything that happened in a evasive way. Whilst this is the reality of everyday China, the subtle ways people work within it were glossed over, as were the contradictory moments where the state’s presence comes to the fore. Ai Weiwei’s interrogators appeared constantly on the back foot, ignorant of art and society, or were there to be laughed at which always makes me feel shifty. In short, ‘the Chinese’ were almost stereotyped in a way appealing to, and understood by the West but authored by one of their own – with a bit of Brenton thrown in. It is unclear how much of Ai’s account is true, how much of the script he authored or changed, and how much is Brenton. Therein lies the dilemma: do you present a one-sided account, or do you open that account up to present a more complex world view? I know from experience that activism works best when you have a clear argument, but this was agit prop theatre for middle class liberals such as yours truly. And I felt uncomfortable with it. I’d have preferred a more subtle sense of things – so much of Chinese art deals with censorship as part of its aesthetic, as a constraint like money or materials, and is oblique in its critique of the state. This production simply didn’t have that dynamic yet was about the artist who excels by working in the grey areas.

Which brings me to Chimerica, the latest offering from Lucy Kirkwood at the Almeida. Well, at 3 hours 10 minutes, it needed a dramaturg and an edit. It was beautifully and slickly staged with a revolving white cube and impressive projections. The play starts from an interesting premise, with an American journalist taking one of the most famous photographs from the Tiananmen Square massacre of a man standing in front of a tank, and heading off on a search to uncover his identity. So far so good, but for me, the play didn’t really run anywhere interesting with it. It could have been a really great play about obsession. It kind of was, but the implications of that were very thin. It could have made a really great thriller on this search for the man with the bag, another vein it tried to pursue. It could have been a great play about US-China relations – but it had no real message in that regard.

For me, the title didn’t really reflect the play. ‘Chimerica’ was coined by Niall Ferguson, a way to think about the relationship between the two superpowers of the 20th and 21st Centuries, but the play only lightly touched upon US-China relations and misunderstandings. As the American journalist follows leads in his search for ‘tank man’ he finds the brother of the man driving the tank, this brother views the tank driver as the hero in the picture, not the man stood in front of it. We also see a critique of the economic band wagon hopping and of the lack of cultural understandings arising from ‘doing business in China’ but it was presented as a powerpoint lecture. Not the most subtle device for banging home a political message and a bit too reminiscent of David Hare. All of these were side lines and none of these themes were explored in any depth.

It WAS about identifying with a stranger, and so in that sense was about ‘universal truth and humanity’ but I never felt it even ran with the ethics or dilemmas of that fully either. Chimerica ended up being a story about a ‘white man in China’ – which I don’t automatically object to if the play has a real punch home message. It wasn’t a bad play and everyone was good in it, but the links between China and America never quite worked, it was like there was an American story and a Chinese story but the two didn’t fully cohere or connect. Critics have called it expansive and breathtaking, but to me all the threads ended up in a tangle.

Which brings me to David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at the Park Theatre and my own academic activities a few days before. I’m not just saying this because I did the Q&A, but this play delves where these other productions didn’t. In part Yellow Face is about issues of race and our inability to move towards a post-racial society. Yet it also goes into uncomfortable territory, where Chinese American citizens are suddenly detained or indicted (such as the Chinese American scientist Wen Ho Lee and Hwang’s own banker father) because they are perceived as foreigners working for the Chinese state. Here there was a probing, a delving into Chinese-American relations using humour and drama.

Last Friday I also attended the final Translating China event held at Westminster University  organised by Anne Witchard and Diana Yeh. I watched academics such as Duncan Hewitt and Jeffrey Wasserman, and curators Pamela Kember and Rachel Marsden all talk about the subtleties in translating Chinese cultural influences, whether in novels, art or the internet. See Rachel’s brilliant account here. They were thinking through how to mediate and understand, how to engage, how to account for cross-cultural currents. This nuance and depth is not quite what I see on stage in productions such as Chimerica or #aiww. We all want to engage with China more than ever, but I feel that very few are managing it on stage in a complex and thought provoking way.

The burden of history: From Privates to Edwin.

I was curious, I admit. This play that is so beloved of British regional theatre, revived last year (I think) at Pitlochry and Keswick but set in colonial Malaya, now in the West End. Again. Here it was, Privates on Parade directed by Michael Grandage. Now, I had written to Grandage, and he graciously replied (a minor stir in the department post room). His note commented that: “I hope you will approve of the way we have looked at the ending of the play to favour a new point of view in respect of the East Asian characters.” What was this new point of view on the silent Chinese characters? Did they speak? (Sadly not, is the answer). I had an inkling of what this might be, because Grandage has staged this play before at the Donmar in 2001, and I’d read up…. Nevertheless I wanted to see Privates on Parade and find out if it had any redeeming features and why it was popular. I can honestly say that I went in with an open mind, that I was not going to rant before I’d even seen it, and I wanted to try and enjoy it. Not least because I’d forked out on tickets.

Well, the story of the colonial troupe in Malaya, entertaining the troops and fighting communist rebels was not my cup of tea. It just seemed so archaic and out of touch with my own liberal sensibilities. I fidgeted. My husband fidgeted. For 3 hours. I laughed a few times, at Simon Russell Beale’s Captain Terri, and don’t get me wrong, everyone was good, I could see that they were all good. The comments over the brilliance of SRB were justified, he encapsulated camp perfectly and he really is a panto dame in the making. I like panto, I didn’t like Privates on Parade.

I just don’t really like plays where it’s ok to use the word “chink” onstage, and then feel the audience laugh all around me. Or to have, wait for it, wait for it, the song about the “dusky” Asian prostitute who of course gets thrown over. At least she didn’t die and ends up married to Captain Terri. And let’s not forget the silent inscrutable Chinese stereotype. Who were, literally, that. I wondered if the actors had been directed something like…. “Whatever you do, don’t smile, don’t give anything away.” Now, I am not a kill joy, I like a good laugh. I just don’t find these things funny.

Let’s deal with the East Asian issue. As always, I am happy to see East Asian actors on stage, and I am always supportive of the actors. In this production they did have more agency, I admit, than in the script, where they simply move the set about. They are still the lackeys, but we know that they are the Communist fighters, that they are rebelling against the colonial authorities they serve. We see Lee and Cheng rifle through documents as they serve tea and we see them kill the colonial officers exploiting them. The idiocy of the British in Malaya becomes ever more apparent particularly when on tour, where they perform to Guerkas who have no understanding of what they are doing. But when I saw Cheng take out the deck of cards, light up and set up his gambling den on a British coffin, I just thought, great, there goes the Chinese stereotypes again, evil, inscrutable, gambling (of course), disrespectful. We are in c.1940…. but wait, yes, of course, we are aren’t we, isn’t that the point?

Here’s the thing: it’s *the play* and *the play* is based on Peter Nichols’ experiences, so that’s ok, right? How silly of me to expect more from the 21st Century. It was the straightest of performances, ironically enough. There was no criticality, no ability to relate the action to our own societal understandings and assumptions. The scene where Private Flowers gives Sylvia money for an abortion and states “but it’s about society and what society expects” was crying out for a twist for audiences to think ‘hang on’ — but it didn’t happen. I was hoping we’d all be shifting in our seats, not tittering. So instead, that’s just the way things are, duckie. It disturbed me that the audience went “ahhhhhhhh” at the final moment, when we see Cheng in a western business suit with the backdrop of contemporary Asia (it was so fast I couldn’t see if it was KL or Singapore). He smiled and nodded to it, and the audience went, “Oh ok, that’s what you wanted.” That’s when audiences get who the joke is really on. At the very last moment. But that twist did not redeem the play. To my mind, that quick reveal read as: that’s great then, you are a highly developed, modern society. We’re the backwards ones, the joke really is on the Brits. BUT, in fact, all that colonialism was something you had to just put up with to get there. Success makes history irrelevant and it is all ok.

A play such as this simply reinforces a sense of security in British identity, back in an imperial world. A world long since passed. It just comforting nostalgia. But is it acceptable to keep performing that world now, in a city where less than half the population are white or British? Is this play now redundant? Does historical context make all these racial insults allowable, enjoyable even, because that’s ‘just how it was back then?’

We seem doomed to be burdened by our imperial legacies. I have been annoyed by reviewers saying it’s set in Malaysia, it’s not, it’s Colonial Malaya, which is Malaysia and Singapore, and FYI: Bukit Timah Road is in Singapore. In addition, one journalist commented on twitter that they’re Malaysian not Chinese. Well. I forgot about Chinese migration to that part of the world. We are so bound up in our desire for comfortable categories, for the Chinese to be in China, not to have Malaysian Chinese and Singaporean Chinese, or even British Chinese.

To my mind, these are the same kinds of problems as those engulfing the Broadway debacle of brown facing in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (see the Fairy Princess here). Rather than employ some of the many talented South Asian musical stars, the Roundabout Theatre hired white actors, put them in brown face, because ‘that’s what they did in Victorian music halls.’ Again, by all accounts the production achieved this naturalistically, and so the desire for historical authenticity seems to have rendered theatres critical zombies. How plays such as Privates on Parade or The Mystery of Edwin Drood are performed needs to be much more carefully thought through, not simply in terms of their casting but their settings, their direction, their practices.

After much lobbying, Roundabout Theatre are meeting with The Asian American Performing Arts Coalition to discuss the issues in play. I am very very much looking forward to doing similar with the British theatre establishment at the Opening The Door event on Monday. There is a peculiar commonality in both the U.S. and the U.K. right now, where these kinds of unproblematic representations are emerging more frequently, but increasingly being challenged and contested. Watch this space……

Review: The Orphan of Zhao

En route to the family Christmas, the time came when I finally entered the hallowed (and somewhat cramped, given the £112.8m refurbishment) halls of the RSC to see the play I had been campaigning about. I had to see if it was better, or worse, than I imagined, plus the fact that come April I will be writing about the transnational protests surrounding it for my book, as long as the publisher agrees. If not, Antipode beckons. Therefore I have to see it and form my own opinion.

The Orphan of Zhao is a revenge tragedy. There are many versions of the story, but effectively, a wanton Emperor comes under the increasing influence of one of his most powerful and power-hungry courtiers (Tu’an Gu), a man who feeds the Emperor’s baser instincts. When, at Tu’an Gu’s encouragement, the emperor starts killing his own people by firing arrows into a crowd, another minister (Zhao Dun) protests, and is executed for speaking out. Zhao Dun’s wife, the Emperor’s daughter, gives birth to a son shortly afterwards, but Tu’an Gu has declared Zhao a traitor and ordered that every member of the Zhao clan be massacred. With the child at risk, Zhao’s wife gives the baby to a country doctor who smuggles him out of the city. When the escape is discovered, an order is sent out for all new-born children to be executed. The doctor also has a new baby, but without realising, has placed himself in an impossible position: all children must die, or he can swop the titular orphan with his son, claim that he knows where the missing Zhao boy is, and sacrifice his own child to prevent the deaths of countless others. With the aid of a retired courtier who was a friend of Zhao Dun, this is what duly happens. The doctor raises the Orphan of Zhao as his own child at court, with everyone unaware of the Orphan’s true identity. When the Emperor starts to die, the 18-year-old Orphan undertakes a mission for his adopted father, the plot unravelling towards the discovery of his true identity and his revenge killing of Tu’an Gu.

The story itself is engaging but I was unconvinced by Fenton’s adaptation of it. Many of the critics praised his poetic language, and whilst Fenton is an admirable poet, for me this didn’t ring true. Often I found the script clunky, and at times the exposition seemed to drag. The best word I can describe it as is ‘stagey’ with some characters entering on stage and introducing themselves to the audience by saying ‘I am x.y.z’. However I couldn’t work out the logic for those who did this, those who did multiple times, and those who never introduced themselves. Time to buy the playbook then. I also expected the first act to end a scene earlier so that there was a clear younger orphan/older orphan division but my suspicion is that the script is written as a series of scenes, rather than as acts. So yes, it is all written and performed Brechtian style, but it was patchily executed.

The production values of The Orphan of Zhao were also very high: it looked good, it was well directed and for the most part it was well acted (although the doctor wasn’t always convincing, particularly when it came to deciding to swap the children and sacrifice his son – the script made it all too easy and neither the doctor nor his wife seemed to feel much resistance). Aesthetically, the Chinoiserie in some of the costuming, particularly the military Chinese-warrior inspired costumes, did make the production look as though white people were dressing up. And despite what some critics suggested, I saw no evidence of any form of Chinese movement or acting style. On reflection I do feel that Doran’s research trip to China was more about networking for the future rather than directly feeding into this particular play. The research for The Orphan of Zhao – the period, the dress, the setting, could have been done in this country given the production that’s been created. But the audience seemed to love it with the woman on the bus back to the car saying that she thought it was the ‘best thing I’ve seen all year.’

So where’s the rub?

The debate with The Orphan of Zhao was always with the casting, with both the lack of East Asian actors and the types of opportunities being offered. Although many critics said that they felt the production would have benefitted from more East Asians actors, they never said why. Here’s why.

To start, the RSC made a big fuss about this being one of few Chinese plays to ever be staged in Britain. So, when in the opening of the performance all the characters lined up on stage and walked down to the audience, the thing I saw, felt, at once, was a wall of white men. Although this was a 6/17 multiculti cast, by placing the three white advisors upfront in their coloured Chinese robes everyone else faded into the distance. Then, down towards the back were, of course, the East Asian actors carrying their spears. The RSC ‘ethnic’ spear carrier is one of the oldest and most famed acting stereotypes and it was there in all its glory. But it had resounding implications for the rest of the play. In her review (here) Anna Chen noted that the ethnic actors (including black as well as East Asian actors) were all servants looking on as the white actors performed the main scenes, and for the most part this was how the play read.

During the furore, the RSC tried to absolve itself by suggesting that the Princess’s Maid, Susan Momoko Hingley, had a pivotal role in the production because she sacrificed herself to help save the Orphan child. In reality, this was not a protagonist role. By protagonist I mean someone who drives the action of the play. People may disagree with me, but the scene where she dies trying to cover up the child’s whereabouts is entirely reactionary, because she has to respond both to Tu’an Gu’s questioning and to the Doctor’s plans. Her plans, her stories, her lies, fail. And so her attempt to influence the direction of the story is simply a small cog in the wider machine of men. Her actions have zero impact on what happens next. Hingley herself was good but she died just too darn quick. And although that’s part of the story, it reminded me of yet another stereotype. Similarly, I really liked the demon mastiff puppet dog, according to the RSC another demonstration of how skilled the ‘ethnic’ or ‘East Asian’ actors were, but its presence on stage left as fast as it came. The problem with all of this is that if you don’t cast East Asians as protagonists they are left to scoop up all the bit parts, which only leads to stereotyping. For me, the most problematic of these moments was when there were babies and horses on stage. For instance, when the Doctor persuaded his wife to give up their child, the two babies were held by the actors but in diagonally opposite corners sat Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Siu Hun Li making the gurgling and crying sounds. Similarly, when Tu’an Gu was riding, he literally held Hoi and Li by the ropes as they acted as horses. Now as sound effects go, these were pretty amazing, but these moments were distinctly problematic, because they hark back to all those old stereotypes of Chinese as dogs, as animals, as unhuman or subhuman. Or in colonial parlance, as children needing guidance. You could have had black and Asian actors, or white and Asian actors, or black and white actors doing the same thing, but because of how it was cast, it was two East Asians. So to me, the casting and the direction was a bit naïve. Whilst the RSC may have thought it was being liberal in creating a multicultural cast across three plays, the implications of the casting choices in terms of the overall arc and direction of the production were sometimes deeply problematic.

Of course, the final scene with Hoi as the Doctor’s grown up ghost child, has been feted as one of the most moving in the play. The moment when he realised that his father loved him dearly even as he was sacrificed. And indeed it was moving, which only served to highlight that East Asians can be more than babies, spear carriers and puppet masters. They have, and can portray humanity.

Here’s the real rub though: if audiences love the production, if critics such as Dominic Cavendish can openly say on twitter “yes and no” in response to the question “did you enjoy the Asian babies and horses and didn’t you find that problematic?” then the casting of this production only serves to reinforce societal assumptions about Chinese identity through its use of East Asian actors. Many East Asian writers, actors, directors and theatre companies are working against these images, or trying to. Many vaunt the potential of theatre to provide alternatives that are living and live. Many hope that what is seen on stage will filter into the public consciousness so that maybe the next time someone from the audience meets someone East Asian, they will be more open towards them, they will check their own expectations. And so if the RSC can come along and call this production progressive, if audiences aren’t confronted by an alternative, then the uphill battle really is graver than imagined.