THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 6th December, 2012
The story is the stuff of legend and folk tale, detailing events before and after the birth of the titular orphan. Thousands of years old, the plot has elements of Hamlet, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and even Star Wars and The Lion King, and yet this new adaptation by James Fenton feels fresh as well as familiar. It is never short of engaging or thoroughly entertaining and it’s also rather stirring.
Niki Turner’s stylish but sparse set is the backdrop for this epic story, while Stephanie Arditti’s extravagant costumes and Paul Inglishby’s music lend an Oriental air to the proceedings. I believe there was some hullabaloo about the casting of this production, the dearth of Chinese actors in the company. This bum’s view on this kind of argument is, Acting is all about pretending to be what you are not. Otherwise, you could say only a Dane may play Hamlet, and pantomime dames and principal boys better start claiming the dole.
We meet the Emperor (Stephen Ventura), a man given to taking pot shots at the populace with his bow and arrow, purely for the sake of entertainment. His right hand man and (the biggest) villain of the piece is Tu’An Gu – Joe Dixon, who is great fun with his Northern twang and massive mastiff. He is the Darth Vader to Jake Fairbrother’s Cheng Bo – the long lost Orphan himself. Fairbrother is splendid as the dashing young hero who comes to learn his true identity, showing nobility and vulnerability in the same moments. The wonderful Lucy Briggs-Owen is the wronged Princess, mother to the Orphan, roaming her palace prison like Miss Havisham Peking style. You hope she will be reunited with her son; indeed it is inevitable but in this story of sudden violence and self-sacrifice, you can’t be entirely sure it will come to pass. Until it does.
Country doctor Cheng Ying provides the emotional core of the story in a fine and affecting performance by Graham Turner. As characters come and go, dropping like flies, it is through him that we witness the turning of events. Nia Gwynne gives a moving turn as his wife, forced to make the greatest sacrifice – This is a sweeping story with very dramatic events but performances like those of Turner and Gwynne imbue it with emotional integrity, lifting it above the fairytale and the fireside yarn.
Gregory Doran directs with gusto, allowing humour to permeate the sensational scenes. There is shocking violence but it is its impact on the story rather than its depiction that affects us. Red petals rain gently from above every time someone dies, which is often. The plot is resolved satisfactorily – you get a feeling that justice has been done, that right has prevailed – and the final scene, a confrontation between Cheng Ying and the ghost of the child he sacrificed is eerie, moving and, again, right.
It is a pity the Swan was not packed to the rafters at the performance I attended – it’s one of the strongest productions in the RSC’s current season.