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.