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.
But 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.
The 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.
Does 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.