Forgotten, Arcola Theatre

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By Laura Kressly

Old Six and his wife Second Moon are poor but have a new baby. Eunich Lin is constantly ridiculed for his lack of balls and family’s poor timing. Big Dog doesn’t know his real name and loves smoking a bit too much. Apart from the love of performing Chinese opera to their friends and families, there’s little else that brings joy to this rural village in Shandong Province. But when the villagers hear that the British and French are recruiting men to work in labour camps to support the WWI troops, this could be a way to change their fortunes.

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Chinglish, Park Theatre

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Since the Print Room came under fire for whitewashing a Howard Barker play set in China earlier this year, three notable productions featuring East Asian actors graced UK stages. At different venues and produced by different companies, they were too close in time to the Print Room’s racism and to each other to be a deliberate, unified challenge. Instead, they optimistically indicate a sea change in on-stage visibility of East Asian actors. Perhaps they will no longer be relegated to silent maids, martial artists and geeky mathematicians; instead they will take on leading roles that showcase the diverse talent of British theatre.

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Snow in Midsummer, Swan Theatre

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In 2012, The RSC drew ire for its Orphan of Zhao casting in which there were a whole three East Asian actors. Though the production went ahead, RSC artistic director Greg Doran showed willing to listen and bring about change, meeting with Equity’s Minority Ethnic Members Committee. Now, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s modern adaptation of a Chinese ghost story with an entirely East Asian cast is on stage at the Swan. It’s commendable progress even though there’s still a long way to go in British theatre.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Tang Xianu and Shakespeare were writing about similar themes at the same time, on opposite sides of the world but never met. Teaming up to create a cross cultural performance, Leeds University and International Business and Economics University (UIBE) in China each took a play from each other’s culture and created a new play inspired by the foreign text. Inspired by the Chinese legend of Sophora, a spirit of the woods associated with visions and dreams, UIBE chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Adding multiple levels of reinterpretation, they swap the lovers’ genders and who fancies who in order to comment on gender roles in China and the pressures young people face. Performed in English, the students struggle to connect to the emotion behind the words but their adaptation is a complex and clever commentary on relationships and social expectations.

The Sophora Nest Hotel, run by three nameless staff members with otherworldly powers, is an escape from university studies for glamorous young couple Lysander and Hermia. They are followed by their friend Helena, who’s in love with Lysander, and Helena brings along Demetrius, the geeky, shy boy who will do anything for her. Helena is blind to his love, and instead uses him more as servant than a friend. Mostly in contemporary language, the lovers’ plot thread from the original unfolds but rather than the boys being drugged, its the girls, who then both fall in love with Demetrius. Lysander, who orders Hermia around to no end, needs to learn to not take advantage of her. Helena needs to do the same with her devoted sidekick.

All the chopping and changing from the original is wonderfully refreshing, and effectively communicates our need to open our eyes to those right in front of us rather than focusing on our own wants. Other themes emerge as well, particularly the pressure on women that results from being under their father’s thumb, then their husband’s. All four characters also have the drive to be the sexiest, cleverest and have the fanciest gadgets. Though China is so far away, it’s both comforting and disconcerting that young people feel this the world over.

The three hotel staff add a lovely dynamic. One is purely logical and analyses the hotel guests’ behaviour. A second wants to play tricks, and the third tries to maintain harmony between the first two. The emphasis on balance between this trio and the lovers feels distinctly eastern, and one worth worth considering in the west.

Though still maintaining an amount of student-level execution, the insight these Chinese young people provide through their script is provocative, relevant and culturally eye-opening.

A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming runs through 13th August.

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