Vengeance, at a Price

By Carnegy, Patrick | The Spectator, November 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Vengeance, at a Price


Carnegy, Patrick, The Spectator


The Orphan of Zhao Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 28 March 2013 The Merry Wives of Windsor Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratfordupon-Avon, in rep until 12 January 2013 Where have you been all my life, Orphan of Zhao? Come to think of it, where has any Chinese theatre been? Bang up to the minute, the RSC's new artistic director, Gregory Doran, launched his regime with the so-called (actually, badly called) 'Chinese Hamlet' on the very day that President Hu Jintao, dwarfed by a 20ft hammer and sickle, prepared to hand over control to Xi Jinping.

As the Orphan is about successful resistance to the misuse of power, Xi Jinping will need to pay good attention.

In truth, the Orphan is a deeply interesting play with a history running back over two millennia. Enraptured by its theme of the triumph of reason over 'blind force and barbarism', the Enlightenment applauded versions by Metastasio (L'eroe cinese, 1752), Voltaire (L'Orphelin de la Chine, 1753) and the doubtless unjustly obscure Arthur Murphy whose Orphan of China (1759) proved, one gathers, a sensation on the English stage.

The play is still often performed in China and its RSC revival in James Fenton's skilful new adaptation is hugely worthwhile.

An unscrupulous courtier, Tu'an Gu, safeguards his power over a weak emperor by removing all possible threats to his own succession. One such is the infant grandson of the emperor, whose courtier father has been driven to kill himself by Tu'an Gu. This orphan is smuggled out of the palace by a country doctor whose loyalty to the rightful succession extends even to the sacrifice of his own newborn son, killed in front of his eyes by Tu'an Gu in mistaken belief that he is the royal orphan. As you'll have guessed, 18 years pass and the real orphan, bizarrely foster-fathered by both the doctor and the villain, discovers his rightful identity and, unlike Hamlet, avenges himself on Tu'an Gu and claims the throne.

Fenton's text and Doran's production brilliantly tread a perilous line. The pathos of heart-rending scenes, which include the doctor and his wife agonising over the sacrifice of their son, is framed within a highcomedy portrayal of the idiotic Emperor and of Tu'an Gu and his henchmen. Characterisations and acting are beautifully done, with Joe Dixon wickedly funny as Tu'an Gu, Graham Turner in the exceptionally difficult role of the doctor, and Jake Fairbrother bridging the credibility gap of incorporating both the Parsifal-like country innocence of the Orphan and the military prowess he's acquired at court. …

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