Even before it opened, Gregory Doran’s production was the subject of controversy. This new version of a story sometimes (allegedly) known as “the Chinese Hamlet” is staged with a cast of 18 of whom only three are ethnically East Asian, and they are in minor roles. On one level the outrage at this as racism is specious: it is only a few months since Doran’s African take on Julius Caesar was widely lauded, and the current ensemble will also present Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s Life of Galileo, yet where are the protests at the absence of a single Russian, German or Italian? In terms of role allocation, it may be possible to make a case for some thoughtlessness, but the point of staging this tale is its universality.
True, the themes of loyalty, honour and duty are to an extent peculiarly Confucian, but the titular character’s conflict between (filial) love and duty strikes me more keenly than Racine’s version of similarly torn impulses in Berenice, currently at the Donmar Warehouse in London. And the magnificently downbeat final scene, with its portrayal of human powerlessness and bewilderment in the face of the otherworldly, could have come from Euripides – although this story is even older. Its first recorded version dates from the fifth century BC, but James Fenton’s adaptation is from a 17th-century revision of a 14th-century drama.
Fenton has a fine ear for avoiding particular linguistic registers, and he exercises it here. His text eschews rhetoric and demotic equally, similarly disdaining faux-chinoiserie except for a very occasional note in the sung ballads which bracket each half of the evening. Much of the performance, similarly, is not quite formal but also hardly naturalistic, save for the notes which individual actors strike. Foremost among these are Joe Dixon as Tu’an Gu, the emperor’s cruel chief minister who sees off his nobler rivals and aims to murder even the infant son of his chief opponent; and Graham Turner as Cheng Ying, a country doctor who shelters the baby and brings it up as his own son, even after Tu’an Gu adopts the boy to be raised at court.
This generates the Orphan’s exquisite dilemma: it is his duty to kill one of his “fathers”, and even the man he believes to be his natural father has lied to him all his life. It is a classic dramatic conflict, and one that has no need of a seal of authenticity brought by a quota of Oriental performers.