Tuesday 27 November 2012

RSC The Orphan of Zhao debate Part 2: British East Asian Artists discussion

With charges of "sour grapes" and claims that east Asians couldn't be cast in parts that had no "Chinese connection", there's an awful lot to discuss concerning the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Orphan of Zhao.

So it's a shame that the RSC declined an invitation to take part in a debate between members of the British East Asian Artists and theatre academics from Swansea, Brunel and Royal Holloway Universities, organised by the Asian Performing Arts Forum.

Dr Ashley Thorpe of Reading University chaired this roundtable discussion. Taking part were Daniel York, Dr Amanda Rogers (Swansea University), Dr Broderick Chow (Brunel University) and Anna Chen.

VIDEO: Part 1 of The Orphan of Zhao debate.

Anna Chen's review of The Orphan of Zhao

The "two dogs and a maid" blogpost that kicked it off.

British East Asian Actors website

The Orphan of Zhao debate Pt 1: no show by the RSC at roundtable discussion

The Royal Shakespeare Company declined this chance to debate with members of the British East Asian Artists group who had been critical of the casting for The Orphan of Zhao, a Chinese classic. The 17 roles included only three BEAs, and those were in minor parts: chiefly working a puppet dog, and playing a maid and a ghost child.

Having seen the production, I can safely say there's a whole lot more that needs to be discussed, oh yes.

Dr Ashley Thorpe of Reading University chaired this roundtable discussion hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum; Taking part were Daniel York, Dr Amanda Rogers (Swansea University), Dr Broderick Chow (Brunel University) and Anna Chen.

Thanks to Chowee Leow on camera.
Edited by Anna Chen.

Part 2 of the Orphan of Zhao debate

The "two dogs and a maid" blogpost that kicked it off.

British East Asian Artists website

Anna's review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.

Review by academic Amanda Rogers.

Thursday 15 November 2012

RSC The Orphan of Zhao review: Aladdin for middle-class grown-ups

At last it is out. I've been champing at the bit, positively having a conniption while all the reviews came out, but finally mine is published and here it is.

A quick update: the British East Asian Artists have sprung up to challenge these archaic attitudes towards us and had brilliant support internationally from the United States of America (thank you Aapac and everyone), Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, France, Spain and Portugal.

Here at home two BEAAs have been added to the steering committee of the Arts Council England, Equity and SOLT/TMA event "designed to facilitate introductions, increase understanding and broker partnerships between East Asian actors and theatre makers and the wider theatre industry." Expected some time in February.

The BEAAs are working to take their campaign to the next step to ensure we can take our place in British culture — it's OUR culture as well.

The Orphan of Zhao review
Royal Shakespeare Company — Swan Theatre
By Anna Chen 8th Nov 2012

Sometimes it's useful being the barbarian at the gate. This "outsider" role has been imposed on British east Asians by top-ranking arts institutions for far too long, so don't blame us when we warm to it. "Normal" roles are denied us unless they're race-specific with a "Chinese connection", and sharp white elbows mean we often don't even get those. The welcome policy shift towards cross-racial casting — intended to give ethnic minorities a fair share of parts, representing British society in all its glorious variety — has led instead to one-way traffic and exciting new opportunities for white actors to scarf up the juiciest Chinese parts.

Take the hallowed RSC's latest offering: a reworking of the traditional Chinese classic, The Orphan of Zhao, dating back 2,500 years: Ji Junxiang's 13th-century version merely the best-known, but here credited solely to adapter James Fenton as part of the RSC's A World Elsewhere trilogy which includes Pushkin's Boris Godunov and Brecht's A Life of Galileo. Only three out of 17 actors are east Asians, but none in leading roles, thereby missing a golden chance to rectify invisibility with something imaginatively groundbreaking. So blatantly unfair is this casting that it's fomented an unprecedented uprising by fellow British east Asian actors and an international controversy.

Orphan is a good old blood-and-guts revenge story, set in ye olde feudal China. Sexually degenerate Nero-like Emperor murders for pleasure while his favourite minister, Tu'an Gu, a black-clad Ming the Mercilless villain played charismatically by a shaven-headed Joe Dixon, plots to grab power. Gu wipes out his chief rival (the noble Zhao Dun) and his entire clan, but misses the baby borne by Zhao's wife, the Princess, the Emperor's daughter. The child grows up to avenge his family and take his rightful place.

As bloody as any Shakespearean or Jacobean tragedy, the story is somewhat cruder. Despite its "Chinese Hamlet" reputation, it features no deep philosophical musings on the meaning of life. How could there be in a story so infused with Confucian fetishisation of hierarchy? The plot turns on the assumptions that aristocracy will out, true blue blood is all, and everyone's lives are subordinate to the blood line.

'Adapted' this may be, but updated it's not.

When Doctor Cheng Ying (Graham Turner) swaps his own newborn son for the aristo, condemning his baby to certain death, there is no sense of inner struggle for this mysterious Eastern cypher. Cheng's motivation is as absurd as it is creakingly mechanical: "He must be given a chance to grow so that justice can finally be done" — a line typical of the subtext-free character of the dialogue. Even his wife, despite begging for her child's life, hands him over without a fight. The Herodesque slaughter the sacrifice is supposed to stop is a dramatically undeveloped afterthought. However, the Pythonesque trail of deaths by a series of plot-devices on legs, including a ninja — Japanese! — assassin Glasgow-kissing himself against a wall is, at least, inadvertently amusing. This is Aladdin for middle-class grown-ups.

The story's appeal to the resurgent 19th-century mindset dominating too many of Britain's cultural institutions is clear. Sex and cruelty: a wonderfully exotic orientalist fantasy for middle-Ingerland. They even fly in four severed heads the colour of the Peking ducks you see hanging in Chinese restaurants, last seen in the ENO's Turandot where the psycho Princess's murdered lovers are suspended in the palace kitchens.

Scratch a liberal and you'll find antiquated colonialist attitudes they don't even know they possess, reinforcing some startling class-and-race political notions. In a potent illustration of these unconscious assumptions, the four ethnic actors playing servants kow-tow in a line while the white actors — Cheng Ying, his wife and nobleman Gongsun Chujiu — play their scene: a snapshot which speaks volumes.

Chris Lew Kum Hoi has one moment to shine at the very end, playing the ghost of Cheng's child. He does it beautifully.

It's fascinating to watch the establishment close ranks over this play. White males of a certain age, desperate to convert paunch into punch, flailing and failing to land one on us because, even by their own liberal criteria, they are on the wrong side of history. We ghosts are materialising and pissing in their prawn balls.

The Orphan Of Zhao runs at the RSC unitl March 28. Box office: 0844 800-1110.

"YOU. NEED. TO. APOLOGIZE." Fairy Princess Diaries

Review by academic Amanda Rogers.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

China's new leaders: a neo-liberal victory?

Say hi to the man set to run the biggest superpower in the world (expected around 2015): President Xi Jinping

The stand-out thing for me in China's changeover of power as incoming President Xi Jinping takes his place at the helm, is the move towards privatisation. The neo-liberal economist Zhang Weiying keeps citing the west's dependence on the market as justification for their abandonment of any socialist ideals of an equitable society despite the disasters these Milton Friedman-influenced policies have wrought in America and Europe. The ditching of the US Glass Steagall Act (separating investment and savings banks) and the banking crisis should be one of several salutory lessons but, with big bucks at stake, the elite is ploughing on never-the-less.

The outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao managed to slow down the rightward drift since Deng Xiaoping set the nation's capitalist course in the 1980s, but were never going to reverse it. Wen is said to be keen on privatisation, although the fortunes of his geologist wife — once a state regulator of who China's diamond market and who now owns a fat slice of it — have proven to be an embarrassment. Once seen as progressive (he famously accompanied General Secretary Zhao Ziyang into Tiananmen Square during the protests but luckily didn't share Zhao's fate, ending up being promoted rather than purged) his is the kindly face of the new capitalism. And yet, his family is reported to be worth US $2.7 billion — a figure he is disputing all the way into the law courts.

Wen has steered a leftish course, such as resisting US demands to devalue the renminbi — so tiny is the mark-up in Chinese manufacturing which relies on vast volume that even a tiny rise in the interest rate would wipe out a large swathe of their production. However, in 2009, he declined to introduce a huge state stimulus package despite soaring wealth, turning his back on Keynsian policies traditionally favoured by socialists, emboldening the hard-core neo-liberals.

Since the fall of golden boy Bo Xilai — another populist but one whose USP was Mao nostalgia and lip-service to socialist values while filling his boots — the neo-liberals are off the leash, promising to privatise everything that isn't nailed down and laughing at the notion of public investment. Should they win outright, the only freedom on the cards is the freedom for this bloated layer to stuff themselves with state assets and play catch-up with the Soviet oligarchs. And look what happened to them!

It almost feels like a smash and grab before everything falls apart, although recent figures contradict projections of China's demise as global economic powerhouse miracle. As in the UK under Tony Blair (what is it with these supposed socialists?), the gap between rich and poor continues to grow but, with the incoming crew, that widening between the haves and have-nots promises to accelerate to a yawning chasm (average annual urban income is $2,000). Whether the centre can hold under the centrifugal pull on social assets spinning off into the bank accounts of former cadre as they pilfer the state, remains to be seen.

The good news is that strikes are on the increase, and workers are being radicalised as their exploitation bites. The excesses at Foxconn seem never to be out of the news even if we keep buying their iPhones in an astonishing failure of solidarity.

Freedom of speech is a lot healthier than you probably realise, the government's attempts to close it down notwithstanding. Chinese netizens are probably the most populous and active in the world, expressing themselves on internet services such as Weibo. The Chinese have proven creative in getting around blocks, often with hilarous results: such as the Grass Mud Horse and River Crab episodes where the levels of meaning in Chinese characters allow the dissenting public to say much more than first meets the eye, and lampoon the authorities over their corruption. Ai Weiwei's imaginative sending-up of his tormentors has also proven popular with donations towards his legal case literally flying in over his garden wall, folded into paper aeroplanes.

It's interesting to note that, despite western criticism of the Chinese lockdown on free expression, a company linked to none other than Mitt Romney has won the contract to put as many CCTVs in public spaces as we have here — they have yet to catch up the UK as being the most surveyed nation in the world.

Perhaps the Mayans were right in their own way. Maybe 2012 isn't the end of the world, but the end of enlightenment values the world over as the light is switched off. All power to those strikers.

This Saturday I'm appearing in the morning at an all-day event. Socialist Resistance have a full day meeting on developments in China next Saturday in London and meetings all around the country with Chinese suthor Au Loong Yu to launch the new book analysing China’s growth from a Marxist perspective – “China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility” (Resistance Books, IIRE, Merlin Press).

Also read The Changing of the Guard at Socialist Unity.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Anna Chen at Farrago Poetry Nov 2012: bringing the funny

Here for your pleasure is a video of my gig last night as a guest poet at the Farrago Poetry Slam London heat of the 2012 Slam championships. Congrats to Richard Marsh who goes on to the next heat.

I'm performing "Poe", "Daddy Freud", "Travelogue" and "Ode to a Detox on Returning from St Ives".

Friday 9 November 2012

Anna and Lucy go to Stratford: RSC The Orphan of Zhao

Had we been ninja, we could have crept stealthily into the village without being seen. However, as we had done our research — which in this case consisted of being Chinese and paying attention — we blew into town and proceeded to make like we were proper Ingrish which, as we all know from recent events, we are not.

I am about to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write my review and feature.

In the meantime, let's have an Interval and some lovely photos of the day Les Gurls (Lucy Sheen and I) went to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Orphan of Zhao.

First, here is a short quiz to keep you entertained while I go off and do my thang:
Q1: Was there or was there not a ninja in last night's show?
Q2: Where do ninja come from?
Q: How many other spacio-temporal anomalies can you find?

Not having a "Chinese connection", this little repast confuses our intrepid heroes and Anna can't work out whether to dunk her sausage into the mash or her Earl Grey tea.

The barbarians at the gate about to breach the defences.

Inside! Er ... but still outside. Oh, you know how this works.

The lovely RSC programme — A Dysfunctional Dynasty. I'm not arguing.

What we are.

How this makes me feel.

The Fairy Princess Diaries strikes again.

Visit Lucy Sheen's fab new website.

Friday 2 November 2012

My Get Fit and Write Diary: the struggle of a lady of letters

Inspired by Gwynneth Paltrow's Journal at goop.com, I will now take an organic leaf out of her virtual volume and keep a diary of my struggle as a lady of letters.

7.30am Wake up. Twilight. Cold. Forbidding.

7.35am Fall asleep.

8.05am Wake up. Stare at the space where my mug of tea should be. The absence makes me think about the state of the world, the sad state wherein which we humans have arrived at in. Fall asleep.

8.42am I must have dreamed — vividly — because I wake up with a start, full of inspiration, or something. I snatch up my black moleskin notepad, stroke its soft yet firm welcoming cover, and scribble down my thoughts.

8:45am Fall asleep.

9.22am I am woken with a steaming cup of Earl Grey, too hot for plump sensitive lips that speak of sensuality and a generous soul, so I wait for it to cool a little.

10.17am I wake up to find my tea tepid — the ice-fairy has visited during my slumber. I drink a little, nevertheless, and am reminded after the first lukewarm mouthfull that hot things rise, and that my tea will fall icier as I descend its depths. I call for a fresh cup. Bone china — with real bone so the delicacy of bergamot infusing the leaves of the camellia sinensis can come through and clear my heady head, even if it means (s)cuppering my drive to go vegetarian like my heroine Gwynnie and save the planet.

10:18am Intent on using every available moment of the day, before even leaving the warmth of the duvet, I do some limbering up in bed. I know I must get myself fighting fit like an athlete for the day ahead. It is vital for a creative person like I to get their endorphins flowing through the brain: the intellect is your armoury in the struggle to create. Breathing puts arrows in your quiver, lead in your pencil and electron thingies in your Mac.

10:33am Exhausted from multiple leg-raises and yoga stretches, I resist the urge to slip into the sweet arms of Morpheus. But, hark, here comes my tea. I clear my lungs of their overnight bronchital detritus and contemplate the day ahead.

One must be sensitive to the Process. I am aiming for a chapter every day: two thousand words minimum. At this rate I will have my memoir finished by Christmas.

14:15 Showered, lunched and gardened out, I proudly announce that I have spent 20 minutes masturbating when I catch myself and realise I mean the other activity beginning with M: I have been meditating for 20 minutes flat-out and feel marvellous. I settle down to the computer to write. But first, I download my email, respond to several urgent calls upon my time, check Facebook, read the papers (including my secret vice, the Daly Mail), check Twitter, check Facebook again and then, finally ready to begin The Work, I open up the Word document.

It is not the blank screen of terror that stares back. I have already written 500 words or so only the previous week before having to take an important telephone call. However, time ticks on and the butcher shuts at four so I dash out to the shops, remembering to pick up milk, fresh vegetables and fat balls for the birds.

16:56 Arrive back home just in time to tune in to Eddy Mair on Radio 4's PM. It is so vitally important to keep up with the news, and Eddy's little jokes always make a welcome break from the tragedy unfolding on the BBC. Mr Savile the entertainer and Freddy Kreuger have never been seen in the same room together and there is a lesson to be learned there somewhere if you dig deep enough and think hard and long. But as an intellectual, that is my job.

19:00 We sit down to dinner and another one of Jon Snow's fabulously cheering ties. If only they had these in the Blitz. Lavender socks today, Jon. A welcome joyous flash in today's bleak world.

20:00 I allow my dinner to go down as Mr Showbiz himself, Gok Wan, starts another telly series, "Baggage", which feels ironic somehow and yet never is. I stifle the thought that this is unmitigated rubbish and continue to watch out of solidarity with the bredren and fascination at the novel sight of a Chinese person actually saying things until the little vein at my temple begins to throb.

23:29 News at Ten and Newsnight over, it is time for bed. I apply myself to my ablutions and retire to bed with my kindle, tired after a hard day's labour. To rest and wake up refreshed for another day's toil at the writing coal-face.