Royal Shakespeare Company under fire for not casting enough Asian actors

RSC criticised for producing The Orphan of Zhao, regarded as Chinese equivalent of Hamlet, with predominantly white cast

The Royal Shakespeare Company is facing criticism for producing a play regarded as the Chinese equivalent of Hamlet with a predominantly white cast.

Of the 17 actors cast in the forthcoming production of The Orphan of Zhao, which will be overseen by new artistic director Gregory Doran, only three are of east Asian heritage. James Fenton's new version of the fourth-century play, which is attributed to Ji Junxiang, is the first Chinese drama the RSC has produced.

The casting has caused anger among British-Asian actors, particularly as it comes so soon after Doran's all-black Julius Caesar – for which the company struggled to recruit enough black actors – and Iqbal Khan's all-Indian Much Ado About Nothing, both part of the World Shakespeare festival. A statement on the RSC's Facebook page had attracted 131 comments this afternoon.

Actor Paul Courtenay Hyu, who has worked at the National theatre and Birmingham Rep, called it "an incredible, gob-smacking episode".

"They have an all-black Julius Caesar and an all-Indian Much Ado, but when they decide to do the Chinese Hamlet, they cast 14 out of 17 actors and all of the major parts as non-Chinese. In the 21st century, that's unbelievable," he continued.

Speaking to the Guardian, Doran stressed that such comparisons are unfair, since The Oprhan of Zhao is part of a three-play season. A single company will also perform Alexander Pushkin's Boris Godunov and a new version of Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo by Mark Ravenhill. "The RSC have led the way in non-culturally specific casting, but there was no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays," said Doran.

For Hyu, this is precisely the problem: "Why does colourblind casting not apply to us?" he asked. "It applies to black or south Asian actors. Blacks can play white, whites black and Asian, but Chinese can't. The rules don't apply to us."

The debate follows this week's news that playwright Bruce Norris intervened to prevent a German production of Clybourne Park from casting a white actor in a black role.

Doran said that the RSC auditioned "lots and lots" of east Asian actors for The Orphan of Zhao, and in some cases made offers that were turned down. "I look at as many actors as I can, and choose not on ethnicity but the best actor for that role. That's the only way to do it," he explained. "I have to say, partly, it feels a bit like sour grapes."

However, British-Chinese actor Daniel York, who has worked with the RSC in the past and auditioned for The Orphan of Zhao, believes the problem runs much deeper: "The whole industry is kind of reluctant to cast east Asians in non-race specific roles. We are generally only thought of as the Chinese takeaway man or the Japanese businessman. It's incredibly hard for an east Asian person to build up the track record that would enable the RSC to feel confident in casting them in a decent role. We're not on the radar because we're not working very much."

Last year, the UK's only funded east Asian theatre company, Yellow Earth, warned that it risked closure after losing its entire Arts Council grant.

Doran admitted there was more to do: "We are reflecting society on our stages and we do it very well with the black and Indian audiences, but we need to be better with the Chinese audiences."

He continued: "It really echoes what was happening with black actors in the 1970s and 80s. They need to have those opportunities. They need, therefore, the visibility. That will attract more of their number into the profession. It's important that the RSC continues to lead the way in that process."


Matt Trueman

The GuardianTramp

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