The Orphan of Zhao
Swan Theatre, Stratford
GREG DORAN’S The Orphan of Zhao, his first production as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, may have hit the headlines because of the controversy it caused over the casting of Chinese actors, but it deserves to hit them due to its theatrical merit.
This well-seasoned director knows how to take an epic Eastern story dating back to 4th century BC, and reinvent it with a Western twist, with the help of writer James Fenton, whose list of credits are extensive. And the result—a beautifully crafted and moving piece of Chinese theatre, Western style, without losing ancient Eastern traditions.
One of Doran’s greatest assets is knowing how to entertain his audience, as well as creating a spectacular show. Following on from previous successes—most notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2005 revived in 2008) and Venus and Adonis (2004 revived 2007)—it is clear to see he has not lost his touch in creating magic on stage.
In Venus and Adonis, his Eastern studies of puppetry and Bunraku were explored to the full, and since then a representation of this seems to becoming his trademark. In his Dream, we saw a life-sized puppet as the Changeling and in this new production of The Orphan of Zhao, an oversized, ancient Tibetan Mastiff is controlled by puppeteers.
This is not the only Chinese stylisation used – showers of red petals represent death, there are carefully choreographed stick fights without contact, and an abundance of melodrama. In contrast to the symbolism, there are some stark moments including the harsh sound of a puppet baby’s neck being broken. The story of self-sacrifice and revenge is beautifully told, helped by a carefully chosen cast whose performances were faultless In particular, Adam Burton’s harsh assassin, Lucy Briggs-Owen as the princess, who really came into her own as the mad mother in the second half, and Jake Fairbrother as the orphan. Graham Turner also proved to be of great mettle as the doctor, although at moments the northern accent seemed misplaced. A beautiful musical score (Paul Englishby) and haunting ballads from Jeremy Avis added to the finery of this production.
The Orphan of Zhao was the first Chinese play to be translated in the West—this version is a historical triumph in its own right.
The production returns to the Swan Theatre on 1st December and runs until 28th March.
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