I’ve been impressed by the certainty, passion and dialectic with which so many commenters online have expressed their view that the only morally or aesthetically defensible approach to casting the world premiere production of Howard Barker’s new play, In the Depths of Dead Love, at the Print Room is one of ethnic verisimilitude.

Print RoomBut I have also found it confronting to learn that it’s apparently not necessary to read the play, or see it performed, or listen to it read, in order to take a position of resolute, righteous condemnation.

So, if the commenters have not read the play, what do they know of it? What the Print Room has told them: namely – that the play is ‘set in Ancient China’ and that the characters have names that are identified as ‘Chinese’: Hu, Chin, Ghang and Hasi.

It’s on the strength of these scarce facts alone that commentators (numbering not only artists rightly frustrated by the lack of opportunities for employment and members of the BAME community with a legitimate bug-bear about the seeming determination of pop and high cultures to hang onto their ‘whiteness’, but also academics, American arts administrators and union leaders, amongst others) have felt compelled to condemn the production.

The passion is fed in part by an exasperating sense of déjà vu created by the impression that this case is identical to that of the RSC’s production of The Orphan of Zhao four years ago and the well-publicised outcry and debate which followed.

The Print Room, in their initial response to the current outcry, tells us that this is a play in which ethnic or cultural signifier is not at stake; that despite their names (and unlike the characters in The Orphan of Zhao) these characters are not in any meaningful sense Chinese, and that, therefore, the ethnic background of an actor should not be a consideration in the casting process.

It’s not easy to describe a play’s entire aesthetic in a few lines, and anyone who knows anything about the theatre of Howard Barker will tell you that in the case of his plays, it’s virtually, if not actually, impossible. Nevertheless, the Print Room had no choice but to try, and in so doing they revealed what they understand to be the playwright’s intent.

Does anyone seriously imagine that for the rare world premiere of a new work by a neglected British writer, the Print Room have not approached casting in accordance with the playwright’s intentions and wishes?

Their response has been widely attacked as failing to comprehend or atone for the original fault, and the argument they’ve attempted to mount has been declared illegitimate.

Print RoomThe only conclusion that can be drawn from this turn of events is that these commenters all hold the view that it is simply not ethically or aesthetically permissible for the play that Barker claims to have written, to exist.

By their argument, a play containing the names listed above, and a stage direction that includes the phrase ‘in Ancient China’, irrespective of its style and technique, must be a play that requires ethnically specific casting if it aspires to be a work of art that is ethically or aesthetically defensible.

That’s a sentiment which sounds reasonable to me.

A play with characters exhibiting personality traits derived from English mores, speaking dialogue by a writer known for innately English lyric poeticism, but given cod-Asian names, does sound to me like The Mikado. I happen to like The Mikado, but—along, I assume, with everyone else—I also happen to think the time for that mode of creative expression by white writers has long passed.

The case of the production of The Orphan of Zhao seemed hopelessly anachronistic to me too. Surely, I thought, it can’t be okay for the British theatrical establishment to annexe a key text from a historically colonised culture, dress some white people up in ‘Ancient Chinese’ costumes and present the resulting performance as ‘The Chinese Hamlet’.

But what makes the present debate more challenging for me is that I have read In the Depths of Dead Love, and heard it aloud – at the Print Room’s staged reading in 2013, so I am unable to pretend that it has anything in common with The Mikado, or with The Orphan of Zhao.

I know exactly what the Print Room was trying to get at in their statement. They’re right, the characters are not Chinese.

Barker abandoned the practice of granting his characters recognisable social or cultural context decades ago. He really does write in a world of his own. I can’t imagine anyone mistaking Barker’s characters for ‘real people’, certainly not in his writing of the last twenty years. He’s a writer who made the decision long ago that in order to explore what interested him about the human psyche under duress, those psyches would be liberated from social realism, and, in anguish, roam an artificial landscape. These characters inhabit no country, participate in no organised social structure.

Print RoomDoes this mean that he’s writing about a ‘universal’ aspect of human nature, untouched by cultural conditioning? Perhaps that’s how he views his artistic project, I don’t know, but I doubt it. It seems to me an inadequate conceptual referent for describing what he’s up to, especially in his recent plays. They are so specific, and invariably bizarre, in their scenario and characters now.

Perhaps I’ve known his work for too long, but generally I find I’m happy to accept that his plays are simply his, part of his world. That his reasons for his choice of raw materials and inspirations are generally opaque to all but him. He makes no effort to come to us in his writing, to help us understand. He demands we go to him and try to observe the act of being human from his unique point of view.

That’s how I experienced In the Depths of Dead Love. A poet who makes a quid by selling opportunities for suicide in a bottomless well and becomes fixated by the grand lady who comes to him each day, never quite able to take the plunge.

It didn’t seem to me then to be a Chinese story appropriated by Barker. Rather, it simply seemed quintessential Barker. It still does.

No one in any of the comments I’ve seen in the last few days has laid claim to this as an Ancient Chinese story. Yes, it has a pleasing paradoxical shape to it, and a poetic sense of the perpetually unfulfilled that seems redolent of ancient legend, and yes there are references in the text to an emperor ruling by divine right. But there’s nothing identifiable as drawn uniquely from Chinese society, culture or legend.

Like all Barker’s plays, it does have specific casting requirements, but the characteristics it seeks in actors are not social, cultural or ethnic—they’re technical, aesthetic and artistic.

The acting envisioned by Barker for his plays is different from any other acting you’ll see on the British stage. It’s just a different style—its own style—one which can only be inculcated and developed over time through experimentation.

Addressing this challenge was one of the reasons The Wrestling School was founded by actors in the late ’80s, and why Barker later decided to direct the work of the company himself. Throughout the company’s life, a relatively small cohort of actors have returned again and again to Barker’s work to engage with the question of how to adapt their craft to suit the needs of his drama.

What I wondered when I first heard the play, and still do, is, given this fact, whether Barker has the right, in his work, to co-opt Chinese character names and a Chinese setting, no matter how nominal. He is a white straight Englishman after all and it follows that he enjoys a position of cultural privilege.

Does he abuse that privilege, inflict damage, or perpetuate a problem when he chooses to give an imaginary landscape of his mind the name ‘Ancient China’, just because in some way or other, keeping his own private notion of Ancient China in mind as he wrote contributed to the particular tone and mood of this play and its poetry.

Can we be certain that he is guilty of Orientalist mis-representation the moment he uses those Chinese names, irrespective of the story he tells and the mode in which he tells it? It’s tempting simply to say ‘yes’, but it seems like stretching the terms of Edward Said’s critical discourse close to the point of meaninglessness.

Said identified the role the West’s re-presentation of ‘the Orient’ played in the pursuit of domination over the countries it ‘found’ there. He was able to argue meticulously for the material damage done to countries, cultures and peoples.
What act of material damage does Barker inevitably commit, the moment he uses those four character names and that stage direction?

Reframe the issue to one of four roles that properly belong to British East Asian actors being awarded instead to white actors, and the material damage is easy to identify. But to frame the issue in that way is to create a chimera. No such four roles have been written.

The Print Room has been contemplating this production since 2013. Most of the artists involved (alumni of The Wrestling School) have been engaged in the challenge of interpreting Barker’s work and bringing it to UK stages, for years; decades.

The cast are suited to their characters, but moreover, by dint of the particular style of their own artistry, they are a good match for the style of the writing. As such, they have excellent prospects for illuminating and enriching the authorial intent in a manner that makes it comprehensible and persuasive to its audience. They are undoubtedly, in this sense, the kind of actors that were in the playwright’s mind as he wrote.

Whether or not he has the right to write in the way that he does is a legitimate topic for debate. All artists offer their work as matter for debate, and that includes debate on the ethics of creative process and the politics of representation.

But don’t fool yourself that the terms of debate will be any less than that. If you want to fight this from a position of intellectual credibility, you’re going to have to dispute the right of this work of art to exist in the way its author set it down.

You don’t get to avoid a difficult conflict—in which the other side of the argument will be the liberty of artistic expression—by claiming that it’s just that the Print Room got the casting wrong.

Disclosure: The author worked briefly for The Wrestling School in 2000, and has been an occasional colleague of the director of In the Depths of Dead Love, Gerrard McArthur. McArthur has not solicited, consulted on or authorised this piece, and the views expressed are entirely the author’s own.

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Christopher Hurrell
Christopher Hurrell is an Australian theatre director and MPhil candidate in the Department of Theatre and Performance at Goldsmiths, University of London.
  • Nicholas Goh

    Hi Christopher, I’m Chair of Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members Committee so I was chiefly responsible for the union statement you refer to above. We specifically and deliberately referred to the statement issued by the Print Room and not the play, though I would apologise for the word ‘casting’ in our Committee statement when it should read ‘the statement clearly shows..’.

    The reason for this is that not having read or heard the play, we can only address what the Print Room has said, which in itself belies significant issues with Unconscious Bias and as you refer to above, Orientalism. Notably:

    1) ‘It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores……It has therefore been cast accordingly’. I don’t think it’s being overly sensitive that many non-white English people find this exceptionally offensive. I personally have been told in auditions that I can ‘stop doing the RP now’ despite it being my native accent. The subtext to the words chosen is unfortunately quite clear.

    2) ‘…the characters have been given Chinese names’. You have mentioned the Orientalism above so I won’t expand on that, but an interesting question to ask is: Would Barker as unhesitatingly set his play in Africa and named a character, for example, Shaka Zulu? Would actors have accepted playing a clearly Black African named character?

    3) ‘No offence was intended, and…none should be taken.’ (this is in the follow up statement) Again, a highly revealing statement regarding their own perspective on the subject. We all offend other people from time to time, but to then follow it up by telling that person they are, in fact, wrong to take offence at something?

    Most of us are familiar with Barker’s work and style and some are fans, others aren’t. Yes, there are difficult questions to be asked about who gets to write what, and I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer. But I think you’ll agree the statements produced by theatre companies when they have been challenged – ‘historical authenticity’ for the Wars of the Roses last year at the Rose; ‘a very ‘English’ play’ above – are very telling about the subconscious biases which still dominate British theatre.

  • Isobel Marmion

    I understand what you’re saying here, and that’s a beautiful and eloquent piece, but I feel like you’re not quite grasping the particular angle that our East Asian actors are coming from, (so clearly laid out by Nicholas Goh below in a way that’s vastly better clarified that I’m even going to attempt right now) In general, I agree with the sentiment that to condemn without having read/seen is risky and frequently totally out of line- However the issue here isn’t with the content/style of the production. It doesn’t matter if there are any content/style similarities with The Orphan of Zhao, or no similarities. It does however, regardless of content/style, have one very important thing in common. Both plays use Chinese Culture as a commodity, without the involvement of Chinese performers. Even if In the Depths of Deep Love’s characters and world are ‘not Chinese’, or not any realistic depiction of any part of the world, the characters and setting have Chinese names, and in a theatre community FILLED with amazingly talented East Asian performers who are CONSTANTLY getting overlooked, to not use these performers whilst using their heritage is hurtful and damaging. Additionally, using Chinese names/setting to purposefully suggest ‘otherworldlyness’ is an outdated and offensive concept, so my question would be, if the show is set in ACTUAL CHINA, why are there no Asian actors? If the show is using Chinese culture as a shorthand for ‘otherworldlyness’ then why is it being performed at all? At the very least, surely East Asian artists deserve to be the ones to cash in on this outdated practice.

  • Joseph Brett

    You’re trying to use “historical verisimilitude” as a dig against those who also protested the white casting by Trevor Nunn. That’s moronic. The point here is that white actors are being given an advantage for any reason that can be found. If the cast was diverse, it wouldn’t be an issue that not all the actors where of east asian decent, the issue is that as usual, white reigns supreme. It’s madness, and you’re trying to wrap some twisted logic around the failings of a respected playwright to operate with any kind of awareness of the ethical landscape of modern theatre. Artistic freedom is no justification when any other ethnicity but white is consistently pushed out of the industry, especially when their cultures are still being strip mined for creative material.

  • Vera Chok

    It is problematic to me that they and the playwright are happy to appropriate China and Chinese signifiers as part of making their fantasy and they reject our objections in a manner that is rather superior (IF we knew the work of Barker. IF we understood an artist’s prerogative).

    1. The, “let’s hire the best actors” falls down as the playing field is not level. We all know that access to opportunities is imbalanced and controlled by gatekeepers/those historically in power/the privileged. We can remove the word “racist” to avoid the emotionality the word triggers, but historical bias and white privilege don’t go away.

    2. The Print Room states that it is an English play and so it is not necessary to cast East Asians. Does “an English play” mean an all-white cast? NO. Reasons should be obvious enough. Why not honestly state that The Wrestling School and Howard Barker have historically worked with predominantly white actors and so this is who they have cast. It is NOT an open casting system, and so everyone should just accept that this is how they work. That would be the courageous and honest thing to state. The artists should be able to make these decisions but they should own these choices honestly. Instead, it is the pretence at being liberal, wiser and inclusive is the thing that really galls me.

    3. Would they (Barker, The Wrestling School, The Print Room) be comfortable using an African or Caribbean cultural setting in the same way? Why is it ok to use Chineseness? Is it because of power differentials? “Blackness” is not to be messed with because of the more commonly known and accepted history and awareness of black history and the imperialist impact of whiteness on black bodies and spaces. Is Chineseness more easily approached because of the ideas of Chinese coldness, detachment, glittering wealth, culture and history? Is it simply because the world knows less about the opium wars, the railroads, the internment camps, the persecution of Chinese and East Asian folk in America or by the British?

    4. We haven’t read the play because it hasn’t been produced yet. I know Barker’s work, but using Chineseness to project his concerns about life makes me uncomfortable. What circumstances would make it ok? Perhaps the play functions as a self-critical piece to demonstrate how the West is uncomfortable with and is afraid of “The Chinese”. Chimerica was an attempt at looking at about how the West imagines China and gets it wrong, how we make assumptions about Chinese people. (NB Whether or not a play is good or succeeds at what it sets out to do is another matter.)

    So no, I am not calling for The Print Room’s production to be censored or banned. I want it to be judged honestly by makers and audience alike. I DO believe an artist should be able to make what they want, and be judge on whether they achieve what they set out to. I don’t mind an all-white cast IF the makers know why they have chosen to do so.

    – Admit they wanted to work with the people they chose from they small, selective pool.

    – Admit that their idea of Englishness is, mistakenly or archaically, white.

    – Admit that they thought that it’s ok to use Chinese signifiers for their own purposes, treating Chineseness as usable, wearable, in the way that people play dress up as fairies, witches or pirates. Chineseness didn’t carry the weight of blackness, for example. I know that makers often think it’s ok to play dress up as Australian aborigines or Native Americans.What do we have in common? Invisibility? Acceptance of powerlessness? Is it supposed that no ones notices or cares.

    What is the “material damage” of doing this? It negates the reality of live people who, along owning some wonderful culture and history, have also been historically oppressed. It reinforces the idea that Chinese and yellow folk can be treated any which way and that it doesn’t matter. This results in the East Asian population in the UK, the third largest ethnic minority group (1.2m) after Black British (1.9m) in media, on the street, being mistreated and ignored. Police don’t pay attention to race crime against East Asians. If the perception is that yellow folk are psychologically robust, can take appropriation, bullying, if we believe that cold, money-savvy, aggressive China is going to take over the world and so a few knocks about on the street, at takeaways, on stage, won’t harm “the Chinese”, we are misunderstanding humanism.

    Print Room, please do go ahead with the show. Make it as beautiful as possible. But please, please rethink your position of blamelessness. Harm has been done and it’s hurtful and arrogant to negate the lived experiences of East Asians in the way you have. But we can all move forward and build on this.

  • Daniel York

    I actually sat down and read In The Depths of Dead Love last night.

    If anything I’m even more angry now.

    The argument put forth by the Print Room is that, although
    the play is set in Ancient China and the characters have Chinese names, the
    characters are not “Chinese” and it’s a very “English story”.

    Is this true? Well, there’s a lot of “deep bows” and talk of
    Emperors but reading the work leaves me wondering just exactly how
    “ethno-specific” a play would have to get before the people who nurtured,
    programmed and presented this one would consider that, yes, we might just have
    to cast some actors who aren’t actually Caucasian and middle-class.

    The thing that really does disgust me, though, is the Print
    Room’s argument that they should have the right to cast “the best actors for
    the roles, independent of ethnic origin”. Leaving aside that being “independent
    of ethnic origin” appears to be a privilege that only applies to white people, we have the Print Room citing
    Christopher Hurrell’s piece in defence that “the characteristics (Barker’s
    play) seeks in actors are not social, cultural or ethnic—they’re technical,
    aesthetic and artistic”

    Let’s just pause there. Would it have to be written in
    pidgin English before the demands were relegated to “social, cultural or
    ethnic”?

    And this is what is utterly despicable about the whole
    argument, had so many times in the past and, I hope, not too many in the
    future: the sheer racial and social snobbery embodied by organisations like the
    Print Room and the Wrestling School when they assert that they cast “the best
    actors for the role”. What they’re actually saying is “you little ethnics just
    aren’t up to the job”.

    This would be bad enough but we’re now all pretty much
    certain that they never met or considered any actors of any other ethnic
    background other than white Caucasian for this play. This play which was
    produced on the radio in 2013. Which Christopher Hurrell maintains was given a
    reading at the Print Room in 2013. They’ve had FOUR YEARS to develop this. FOUR
    YEARS in which it does look as if they never once even considered casting
    actors who weren’t white Caucasian entirely because, I presume, they never once
    considered that actors who weren’t white Caucasian were up to the “technical,
    aesthetic and artistic” demands of the play.

    The racial and social snobbery is compounded by the Print
    Room alleging that the protests have come from “some members of the public”
    when in fact it’s mainly members of the theatre community. When they argue that
    the references to China are merely “oblique”. When they give trite lectures
    about The Great Man being a “fabulist” whose work “is poetic and often
    difficult to pin down in time or place”.

    Yes, we do understand all those things. Because we’ve
    actually read a few books too. We understand the arguments perfectly because,
    believe it or not, we’re “artists” as well.

    And, as artists, we politely but firmly reject this cultural
    ethnic elitist high-handedness.