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Friday, 22 May 2009
Yellowface back from the grave: the state of UK theatre - More Light
Wow! Yellowface is alive and thriving in deepest Dalston with More Light at the Arcola Theatre, written by Bryony Lavery and directed by Catrina Lear.
Imagine, if you will, a return to ye olden days of the almost complete absence of actors of colour from TV, when white entertainers blacked up and sang songs about their dear old mammy and grinning piccaninnies chowed down on watermelon. The Arcola (the c is hard, not soft, in case you wondered) gives us a sort of menstrual minstrel show for 21st century theatregoers getting to grips with sexual politics, while race issues pass right over someone's head.
Here we are, rendered invisible yet again in a story about, ha!, get this, the burial of Chinese women.
Set in the fabulous tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who has just died, seven concubines have been sealed in to continue their duties in the afterlife, but contrive to survive in what's left of this one.
Foot-binding, beastly emperors who bury their womenfolk alive, and cannibalism are all delivered by a troupe of white gals in Japanese kimonos (presumably for added authenticity), yet not one single, solitary Asian actress is to be found in what looks like as anachronistic a piece of orientalism as you can find. What an all-white cast is doing yellowing up in multicultural E8 is beyond me. Not one black woman, no south Asian, no east Asian, no-one reflecting the mixed make-up of the area ... are the theatre producers and commentators completely out of touch with the rest of us? Or couldn't they find any ethnics who'd want to be in it?
Are minorities supposed to gaze in awe at white actors (mis)interpreting us and our history? Or aren't we expected to participate in British cultural life?
I guess now that the Chinese are set to be the new superpower and a juicy new market presents itself, we're going to be inundated by a tsunami of this sort of sensationalist titillation. Not for nothing did the Terracotta Warriors provide a whole new cultural seam to plunder.
The reviewers seem none the wiser.
The Guardian, which has masqueraded as enlightened and liberal for far too long, gives it four out of five stars and witters on about it being, "a meditation on different kinds of meat, a celebration of sisterhood and an examination of how art is valued in a dominant male culture."
Not to this sister, it ain't.
Times online's lurid review reads: "Lavery’s response to this macabre tale imagines the fate of seven concubines and stirs the politics of sex and art into a rich stew whose shiver-inducing main ingredient is human flesh — the meat on which the women survive, first with revulsion, then with greedy enjoyment. It’s both mouth-watering and repellent."
Ooh, I must go and see it, then.
The Times tries to adopt the lexicon of the oppressed but hilariously misses the big picture big time "... they are the victims of a highly refined form of objectification."
Oh really. Join the bleedin' club.
UPDATE: Sorry to spend any more time on this miserable throwback, but Time Out describes the actors as mincing around "on tippy toes like Barbie dolls", I assume, to approximate bound feet. Hmm. Shame that footbinding only existed between the 10th and 20th centuries, over a millennium away from the 210 BCE date of the First Emperor's death. But don't let this fact put off the producers and whatever fantasy they have about Chinese and the lazy way they are determined to portray us here. Oh, I bet they relished the idea of a show that incorporated exotic sex and death and cannibalism, a right load of barbarian Other for a bunch of nice white girls to play.
How much contempt must you have for a people in order to get this so very wrong?
I'm amazed the Arts Council funded this crap when they are supposed to be promoting diversity.
UPDATE 2: There's a bit of a ruckus going on at the Guardian over this.
What Wikipedia has to say about the phenomenon of Yellowface.
Thanks to Gladys Ong for the hat-tip.