Howard Barker’s new play at the Print Room, In the Depths of Dead Love, is set in ancient China…with an all white cast!
SPOILER ALERT! I’m half Chinese. I know you would not think it to look at me, but genetics decided I should look like my father, from Abertawe, rather than my mother, from Hong Kong. I’ve got the pale freckly skin and the thick, curly, Welsh hair of my father, whilst my sister got the flawless skin and the long slick Chinese locks of my mother: not that I’m at all bitter. My grandparents escaped China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and became refugees in Hong Kong, where my mother was then born. She then moved to England to study nursing where she met my father, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, the casting kerfuffle for the Print Room’s production of Howard Barker’s new play, In the Depths of Dead Love, set in ancient China but featuring an all Caucasian cast, has certainly not escaped me. With many people being understandably up in arms, with a protest being organised for its opening night, it also has some high profile dissenters such as director Andrew Keates, who will be directing Chinglish at the Park Theatre next year. However, before coming to a conclusion as whether this is, as many voices claim, modern day “yellowface” and thus offensive, I wanted to look more at the appropriate of ownership when it comes to championing diversity in theatre, and question whether The Wrestling School and Gerrard McArthur’s decision to cast all Caucasian actors in In The Depth of Dead Love is as terrible as it seems.
Gay for Pay
So, if I’m accepting of non-LGBT in LGBT shows, do I have a right to get upset about ‘In the Depth of Dead Love’s’ casting?
As a half-Chinese critic, and someone who wholly supports diversity in theatre, I’m very unhappy that East Asian actors weren’t cast in In the Depths of Dead Love. But do we actually have a right to get uppity when we can be a lot more accepting of other idiosyncratic casting in theatre? The easiest example I can think of is LGBT shows. Many actors in gay, lesbian, and trans shows are anything but. Although there certainly are still a good deal of LGBT actors playing LGBT roles, there have been plenty of gay plays where actors have been straight, some of whom I’ve
flirted spoken to personally to find this out.
It can be easy to try and claim that they cannot bring the relevant level of empathy to the role being straight actors, but more often than not they absolutely do. Anna Martine’s performance in Rotterdam was stupendous in portraying transitioning, tapping into the complex feelings and the effects on relationships. Chris Sheridan’s performance in the original production of Odd Shaped Balls (followed as brilliantly by Matthew Marrs) was so good I was genuinely surprised to learn that he was heterosexual, as his empathy regarding the issues was spot on. So, if I’m accepting of non-LGBT in LGBT shows, do I have a right to get upset about In the Depth of Dead Love’s casting?
Blind Casting Leading the Blind?
Shows have actors cast in roles that aren’t their personal ethnicity all the time and this doesn’t at all effect the quality of the production or the message of the play.
Blind castings have become increasingly more frequent these days, where characters of any gender/ethnicity can play a part of a different gender/ethnicity to themselves. Indeed, sometimes it can cause a lot of aggravation from audience members: one had voiced their dissatisfaction at a female Don John in Iris Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing in the comments section of my review. There was kick-back at the National Theatre’s casting of BAME (black and minority ethnicities) actors in Frankenstein, as, being set in 19th century Germany, some of the original characters were most likely not Afro-Caribbean. As with Amadeus, historically, Salieri was definitely not black. But otherwise, the results of which are almost always satisfactory and edifying.
Indeed, TV Bomb have responded to say they can’t see much of an issue with The Print Room’s casting decision for In the Depths of Dead Love. Shows have actors cast in roles that aren’t their personal ethnicity all the time and this doesn’t at all effect the quality of the production or the message of the play. Lazarus Theatre’s race-blind casting in Tis Pity She’s a Whore didn’t at all mar what was an excellent show, and there are no doubt countless examples myself and other theatre-goers can give where blind casting has worked marvelously.
Therefore, if theatre is all about a human experience, then it shouldn’t matter who plays what part. Indeed, different personal experiences of actors can mould a performance into something interesting and unexpected. So, if we can cast BAME actors in white parts, surely it can go the other way too?
…if you can cast a diverse cast, then you should. If not, then there’d better be a good explanation and reason for choosing to do so.
As a point of theoretic technically, there’s no reason why an all-white cast can’t competently explore the issues of all Chinese characters. But that really isn’t the point! Blind casting has always been about giving exposure and opportunities for demographics that are severely under-represented in theatre. We cast all female versions of Shakespeare, or black actors in white roles, because there are very limited opportunities for women and BAME actors. If we did not do this, then it’s only ever going to be a white male voice that is dominant in theatre, which is something even Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is concerned about. If we do nothing to challenge that status quo, then we really miss out on some fantastic theatre as a cosmopolitan theatre scene that brings different points of views, performances, and provocations.
Yes, we do excuse some idiosyncrasies, but not without knowing or demanding reason as to why. LGBT casting, especially when it comes to trans, is excused because there aren’t always enough openly gay, lesbian, or trans (particularly) actors to choose from. But it’s something we challenge every time it happens, because we know that this needs to change.
The basic rule of thumb when it comes to any casting is, if you can cast a diverse cast, then you should. If not, then there’d better be a good explanation and reason. Indeed, we should challenge the claim that there aren’t enough trans actors to play trans roles. Likewise, we should absolutely challenge an all-white cast for an all-Chinese play, and demand why, where there’s every obvious opportunity to engage a marginalised ethnicity in theatre into the piece, a conscious decisions has been made to do otherwise.
There is absolutely no reason that not even one East Asian actor has been cast in In The Depths of Dead Love. There have been umpteen productions in London that have drawn from the vibrant East Asian actor community: Wild Swans at the Young Vic, Chimerica at the Almeida, Yellow Face at the Park, Takeaway at Stratford Theatre Royal East, Miss Saigon in the West End, and In A Bar in a Tokyo Hotel at the Charing Cross Theatre. Even in Thoroughly Modern Millie, where I had issues with the purposefully stereotypical Chinese accent of Mrs Myers done for “laughs”, this production was still able to find two actors of East Asian origin to play the roles of Ching Ho and Bun Foo.
If In the Depth of Dead Love was really about appropriate blind casting and upholding a representation of a human experience, then I would expect at least one of the cast of four to be a BAME actor, or even at least one East Asian actor: not an entirely Caucasian cast. Only then they can claim that the casting is all about finding actors to explore the characters, rather than portraying them as their ethnic signifiers.
2017 looks like it’s set to be the year of yellowface and cultural appropriation for the sake of being “English”, and that can fuck right off.
This started as an opinion piece wanting to open up a conversation on ownership in such debates and appropriateness of who gets cast in what role and when it’s acceptable: trying to bring some deeper thought to the issue surrounding the ire In the Depths of Dead Love has created. But during that time it’s taken to write this, the Print Room released a gob-smackingly insulting response. There is no reason why In the Depths of Dead Love couldn’t have cast an all East Asian cast for a new play that is set in East Asia. Neither is there any reason to have not cast a racially diverse quartet of actors for the premier.
Claiming that it’s a “very ‘English’ play” to justify its all-white casting is even more despicable! So, British born Chinese aren’t English enough? A multi-ethnic British born cast is also out of the question to explore something “very ‘English'” despite being (inexplicably) set in ancient China? The concept of Englishness is the sole property of white people now? I’m sure the Print Room wouldn’t dream of casting an all-white Porgy & Bess under some vague wankery that it’s actually a show about a “very ‘British'” non-race specific class struggle set to a backdrop of black American “mysticism”. So why is this excusable for In the Depths of Dead Love?
This decision is at worst racist, like so many are claiming (and something I’m certainly leaning towards). But at best it’s so unbelievably lackadaisical and crass, and reeks of a foetid white bias. Their claim that they support “diversity and inclusiveness” in theatre has been completely undone by allowing this decision, and made worse by refusing to apologise but instead defend such an abhorrent misstep. “Diversity and inclusiveness” is NOT some hollow jargon that can be pulled out as some “Get out of Jail Free” to justify this kind of bullshit.
Having heard some very concerned and angry voices, (please read Daniel York’s response over at The Play’s the Thing and Howard Sherman at The Stage) the Print Room’s statement is a big “we don’t care” to the people it hurts the most. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to recast this show given the public and critical response, and it’s the least The Wrestling School and the Print Room can do to redeem itself. There’s even an opportunity here to engage those most angered by the casting to open a dialogue and actually develop upon the “diversity and inclusiveness” they claim to uphold, and actively talk about diversity in casting. The only way I can see it being acceptable to keep the current cast is the possibility of the production setting the play somewhere entirely different to the text, like a futuristic white supremacist colony on the moon, where there’s some Assassin’s Creed like convolution where they relive the lives of their ancestors. At least that would bring a smattering of irony where the Print Room’s understanding of “inclusion and diversity” is completely missing!
Otherwise, 2017 looks like it’s set to be the year of yellowface and cultural appropriation for the sake of being “English”, and that can fuck right off.
For more information about the protest movement against the casting of In The Depths of Dead Love, please visit their Facebook event.