Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Orphan of Zhao - A Dream Come True

The Orphan of Zhao promotional artwork (Source: Royal Shakespeare Company).

About three years ago I read Arthur Murphy’s The Orphan of China, and since being taken by the story I’d dreamt of seeing it on stage. My dream came true this week when my Dad and I took a roadtrip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see James Fenton’s new adaptation The Orphan of Zhao. Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Gregory Doran, the new production is a sumptuous and vibrant staging of an extremely compelling, epic story, performed by an exquisite ensemble of actors.

The play is often compared to Hamlet due to its epic narrative – the real parallel can be found in the theme of revenge. Following an elaborately staged shaming by The Emperor’s usurping minister Tu’an Gu, the disgraced Minister Zhao’s entire clan is annihilated from history with the exception of his wife, the daughter of The Emperor. Matter are complicated further since the princess is pregnant, and when she gives birth Cheng Ying, a doctor, rescues Zhao’s son by sacrificing his own child to ensure the Zhao line can live on, and so that the Zhao clan one day can seek out their revenge. Although it loses a bit of momentum in the second act, the piece is extremely compelling work. There has been a lot of churlish bitching about this behind this production before it even began, which has viciously attacked RSC for only casting three Asian actors in this production. It’s very clear that rather than adhere to a gimmick, attempting to present an austere and gruelingly traditional staging of the text, race has been cast aside as a casting criteria and only the best, most talented actors into their respective roles.
Joe Dixon as Tu'an Gu (Source: Royal Shakespeare Company)

On that note, the ensemble cast are easily the strongest I’ve ever seen on stage, with multi-talented seventeen performers handling puppetry, voice acting, and movement all while managing to navigate around the theatre and entirely engross the audience. The ensemble are well used and all have a moment which shows exceptional talent, including mimicking the cries of a baby, bringing a ferocious dog to life, and executing precise choreography and stagecraft to evoke assassinations and duels. There are a few stand-outs due to their significant roles, where Jake Fairbrother’s pure and serene Cheng Bo is slightly effeminate but somehow beautifully other-worldy, and Graham Turner’s unwavering sense of duty as Cheng Ying also communicates his suffering in every line he speaks. Joe Dixon steals the stage and is a phenomenal highlight as antagonist Tu’an Gu – his portrayal of the character is unlike anything I expected from the role, while being calculated and virile, but also managing to be wickedly comical where appropriate.

Paul Englishby’s score is beautifully appropriate, with many soft passages presented with subtle Chinese rifts and flavors with the live orchestra mixed with some authentic instrumentation. This adaptation also included translations of the original songs, which I had not heard before and was very surprised (and glad) to hear. Niki Turner’s design is gorgeous, including a simplistic but striking architecture based set which allow actors to travel into and through the audience to fill out the entire theatre, and beautiful and authentic period costume designs.

The piece is everything I hoped it would be and more. Fenton’s new adaptation and Doran’s vision to the piece is an utter revelation to the original English translation. This epic is brought to life through an incredible cast, surrounded in a beautiful design with wonderful live music. It’s regrettable that the production has been attacked for a trivial matter of casting, since this production is oozing with talent and is easily one of the most gripping pieces I’ve seen perhaps not just this year, but in my life. I feel so lucky to have seen this piece, and wish I could see it again. 

Tickets for Royal Shakespeare Company's The Orphan of Zhao are £16 - £38, and is showing at Swan Theatre until March 28th. Duration of approximately 110 minutes. Book by visiting Royal Shakespeare Company's website.

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