A London theatre has sparked a firestorm of protest for putting on a play set in China with an all-white cast.
The Print Room, a venue in West London, has been called “bigoted” and “racist” for the decision, and accused of indulging in “yellowface” casting.
The row reached boiling point on Monday, four days after the venue announced who would star in its production of In the Depths of Dead Love by Howard Barker.
However, the venue denied that it is obliged to use Chinese actors and in a statement to Heat Street defended the work as “not about Chinese society” and in fact “a very English play” which has been cast appropriately.
The show – which opens in January – will star Jane Bertish as Mrs Hu, William Chubb as Lord Ghang, James Clyde as Chin and Stella Gonet as Lady Hasi.
It focuses on an ancient Chinese poet who is exiled from the emperor’s court – and has provoked protests from London actors and theatre fans who complained that ethnic minority performers were being denied an opportunity.
Protests online have been led by director Andrew Keates, who is putting on his own play about China not long after the Print Room’s show.
In an interview with Heat Street, he said: “Ethnicity should never in 2016 be a costume or a makeup – you’re depriving these actors of their own world which has been created.”
— Andrew Keates (@andrewkeates) December 18, 2016
Keates said that London’s theatre scene has “a debt that needs to be paid” and claimed it was “morally reprehensible” to act as The Print Room did, and called on the venue to sack the actors and hire new ones who are Asian.
He continued: “It just feels bigoted and naive. I can only hope that because the Print Room is just a small fringe venue that they just didn’t consider this. Perhaps out of this process they will never make this mistake again.”
— Lilly Driscoll (@LillyDriscoll) December 18, 2016
His protests online have been accompanied with hundreds of tweets and posts on the venue’s Facebook page attacking the casting decision.
Keates is also arranging a protest outside the venue on press night in January.
I am completely finished w/ Caucasians in theater not understanding that perpetuating & presenting yellowface is racism. @the_printroom
— Erin Quill (@Equill) December 18, 2016
When asked whether he would consider his own show a rival to The Print Room’s, Keates responded “No. All art is individual”.
After a request for comment from Heat Street, the venue responded with a statement defending its casting:
In the Depths of Dead Love is a very simple fable; it is not a play that tells a Chinese story, it is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives. If it were, the casting would be very different, naturally.
Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm. It is, in fact a very “English” play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient. It has therefore been cast accordingly.
This dark comedy was first presented by BBC Radio 3 in 2013, supervised by Howard Barker, starring Richard E Grant and Francesca Annis, to great acclaim.
We acknowledge that some publicity materials seem to have permitted the possibility of a misapprehension arising. Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do, as our history shows.