This production is a theatrical treat. I guess it was really only to be expected afterÂ his triumphant Cardenio and stunning Julius Caesar that Gregory Doran’s first production as Artistic Director of the RSC would be a delight, but I had not expected that an early seventeenth century Chinese play would be quite so exciting andÂ interesting.
The Orphan of Zhao is the firsat in a trilogy of plays, completed by Boris Godunov and The Life of Galileo, played by theÂ same ensemble. It isÂ a play about dynastic succession, political skulduggery, rule by terror and the triumph of righteousness. It is also a play whichÂ raises issues aboutÂ human sacrifice, the limits of moral obligation and the need for trickery, subterfuge and even ritual suicideÂ if good is to triumph.
The story is very easy to follow, mainly because James Fenton’s adaptation (possibly following Chinese tradition) makes sure that the audience knows exactly who is who. Characters introduce themselves and some of their characteristics to the audience when they enter, before they take part in the action. Sometimes this is so memorable that households (like mine) are still ringing with ‘I am Tu’An Gu’ weeks after having seen the production. Fenton’s text is most unusual, taking history and legend and turning it into myth. The nearest dramatic genre I could relate it to was the late nineteenth century Irish plays of Yeats et al. There is an incantatory, ritualistic feel to it which got right under my skin. And thereÂ are interestingÂ allusions to Shakespeare’s plays,Â such asÂ the eighteen year gap reminding one of the fourteen years inÂ A Winter’s Tale, and the Bible.
There are many fine performances. I thought Graham Turner as Dr Cheng Ying was magnificent. The almost static scene where he is writing the story of the Orphan’s life was extremely beautiful and his final scene where he visitis the scene of his son’s grave extraordinarily moving in its underplayed simplicity. Joe Dixon’s voice and physicality were perfect for Tu’An Gu. Dixon used mainly the lower part of his register to create an intimidating intensity but in his final scene revealed this character’s loss of power by a subtle and extremely effective vocal relaxation. Lucy Briggs-Owen created a multi-faceted Princess simply and effectively. It is hard to imagine better performances than these, even at the RSC. But it wasn’t just the major players who were effective. Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Siu Hun Li, amongst the many parts they played, createdÂ baby noises withÂ touching subtlety and quietness in a brilliantly imaginative scene.
As always Doran’s blocking and stagecraft were impeccable. There were beautiful tableaux and wonderfully executed crowd scenes. DoranÂ clearly expects complete concentration and focus from his actors, and achieved it even during the previews. The actors create a world which is almost entirely credible. It is a remarkable technical achievement.Â Doran’s direction, Will Tuckett’s movement and Niki Turner’s design create aÂ plethora of memorable moments, not least poppies floating down from the flies over the dead towards the end of the play.
This wonderful production should be playing to packed houses. Indeed, it’s one of those rare things where tickets should beÂ impossible to get. But somehow something has gone wrong. Perhaps the British theatregoing public has not caught on to the fact that a Doran production is to die for these days. Perhaps a really complex text, interpreted with imagination at every moment is not so attractive as a farcical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Perhaps RSC goers won’t fork out for something new and unfamiliar. It can’t be the reviews; they have been excellent. But of all the plays on at the moment this is the one to see. Book for it. And stay at Moss Cottage to make a memorable visit to StratfordÂ complete.