Where have you been all my life, Orphan of Zhao? Come to think of it, where has any Chinese theatre been? Bang up to the minute, the RSC’s new artistic director, Gregory Doran, launched his regime with the so-called (actually, badly called) ‘Chinese Hamlet’ on the very day that President Hu Jintao, dwarfed by a 20ft hammer and sickle, prepared to hand over control to Xi Jinping. As the Orphan is about successful resistance to the misuse of power, Xi Jinping will need to pay good attention.
In truth, the Orphan is a deeply interesting play with a history running back over two millennia. Enraptured by its theme of the triumph of reason over ‘blind force and barbarism’, the Enlightenment applauded versions by Metastasio (L’eroe cinese, 1752), Voltaire (L’Orphelin de la Chine, 1753) and the doubtless unjustly obscure Arthur Murphy whose Orphan of China (1759) proved, one gathers, a sensation on the English stage. The play is still often performed in China and its RSC revival in James Fenton’s skilful new adaptation is hugely worthwhile.
An unscrupulous courtier, Tu’an Gu, safeguards his power over a weak emperor by removing all possible threats to his own succession. One such is the infant grandson of the emperor, whose courtier father has been driven to kill himself by Tu’an Gu. This orphan is smuggled out of the palace by a country doctor whose loyalty to the rightful succession extends even to the sacrifice of his own newborn son, killed in front of his eyes by Tu’an Gu in mistaken belief that he is the royal orphan. As you’ll have guessed, 18 years pass and the real orphan, bizarrely foster-fathered by both the doctor and the villain, discovers his rightful identity and, unlike Hamlet, avenges himself on Tu’an Gu and claims the throne.
Fenton’s text and Doran’s production brilliantly tread a perilous line. The pathos of heart-rending scenes, which include the doctor and his wife agonising over the sacrifice of their son, is framed within a high-comedy portrayal of the idiotic Emperor and of Tu’an Gu and his henchmen. Characterisations and acting are beautifully done, with Joe Dixon wickedly funny as Tu’an Gu, Graham Turner in the exceptionally difficult role of the doctor, and Jake Fairbrother bridging the credibility gap of incorporating both the Parsifal-like country innocence of the Orphan and the military prowess he’s acquired at court. Lucy Briggs-Owen makes a hauntingly distraught Miss Havisham of the Orphan’s Princess mother eventually reunited with her son, while Nia Gwynne makes an impressive Stratford debut as the doctor’s wife. Paul Englishby’s music for the ballad-singer is distressingly off-key, but all-in-all this is an intensely engaging show and a window into the rich inheritance of Chinese theatre.
Lest you should be in any doubt, a programme-book conversation between the Merry Wives, Mistress Ford (Alexandra Gilbreath) and Mistress Page (Sylvestra Le Touzel), confirms their Windsor ‘is set in 2012; in the autumn, post-Jubilee, post Olympics, in Windsor-upon-Avon, a town like Stratford, well-heeled, wealthy, provincial’. Contemporaneous indeed, on the opening night of 1 November, in that Falstaff’s crowning humiliation is at a Hallowe’en party in which the Wives appear as Bambi and the Cunning Little Vixen, Welsh parson Sir Hugh as a ghoulish Grim Reaper and the schoolboy-‘fairies’ as a pack of sepulchral hounds. But this is also a postmodern show in which the Wives must wait on the touchline with refreshments for their muddy rugby-playing husbands, while the French Dr Caius arrives in a retro 2CV inconsistent with his pretensions as an eligible bachelor and man of fashion. A laundry basket of Agent Provocateur underwear features as prominently as Falstaff himself, so it’s little surprise that the Garter Inn gets a makeover as the Wunderbar, with dirndled barmaids chomping on frankfurters while mein host prances attendance in lederhosen.
The audience lapped up director Phillip Breen and designer Max Jones’s fun-and-games, revelling in Desmond Barrit’s masterly Falstaff. In Barrit’s grotesquerie beat saving humour and a palpable human heart, effectively showing up the petulant Frank Ford (John Ramm) and ‘Superman’ George Page (Martin Hyder) as deserving of whatever adulteries their wives might wish to throw at them — if only! Serious issues of feminist politics are on the agenda, but it’s best to sit back and applaud the lissome Alexandra Gilbreath’s playful delight in Alice Ford and the indignant practicality of Sylvestra Le Touzel’s vengeful Windsor mum. Anita Dobson of EastEnders fame totters around the stage in overtight pencil skirts as Mistress Quickly, and there’s seriously eccentric casting in Bart David Soroczynski’s mercurial, verbally incomprehensible Dr Caius. I suppose one has to see the show as one for the festive season but, rather like Falstaff, I came away feeling a ‘trick or treat’ victim of a Hallowe’en party running out of control.