The Orphan of Zhao is considered one of the classic works in Chinese drama, with comparisons to Hamlet cropping up frequently in descriptions of the play. In 2012, the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of the most distinguished theatre groups in the world, announced they would be doing a new translation of the piece for its season in Great Britain.
So far, so good. But when the RSC announced a 17 person cast, with only 3 people of East Asian descent (and none in major roles), it ignited a controversy that spanned the Atlantic, where, among others, David Henry Hwang, and all the major Asian American theatre groups voiced support for British East Asian artists.
Many felt the RSC compounded its error by invoking “cross casting demands” as an excuse for not casting more East Asians (the RSC would be using these actors in multiple productions in repertory across the season). However, that gave the impression that East Asians in leading roles in Brecht and Pushkin would be “odd” or “not appropriate”, which may not be the best impression to give.
What followed from the controversy was a series of initiatives along with the Arts Council and SOLT/TMA (Society of London Theatre/Theatrical Management Association) including a day-long event early next year designed to facilitate introductions, increase understanding and broker partnerships between East Asian actors and theatre makers and the wider theatre industry.
In 2017, the RSC commissioned a Chinese Classics Translation Project, in order to bring classical Chinese stories to a modern UK audience. The initial offering was a world premiere adaption of Snow In Midsummer, adapted by Francis Ya-Chu Cowhig, another classic from the Chinese canon (and this time featured a number of British East Asian actors, including Katie Leung from the Harry Potter movies).
- The chronology of events from Anna Chen
- Lucy Sheen’s commentary
- The RSC’s Facebook comment
- Daniel York’s perspective.