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Review: The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC, Stratford

Entertainment | Published:

This is a great Chinese classic, sometimes called the Chinese Hamlet. This version, adapted by James Fenton and directed by Gregory Doran, is the first Chinese play the RSC has presented.

It is a fascinating, funny, bloody and hugely entertaining work. I can't think when I have seen a theatre audience so engrossed.

A baby is saved from a clan massacre ordered by an amoral Emperor and, by luck and subterfuge, is raised by the very man responsible for slaughtering his family. Eighteen years later the boy discovers the truth and prepares his revenge.

There are some stunning performances notably by Joe Dixon as the wicked and satisfyingly psychotic courtier Tu'an Gu, Jake Fairbrother as the Orphan and Graham Turner as the Orphan's rescuer, Cheng Ying.

The old warning about never working with animals is reinforced when a glowing-eyed killer mastiff, operated by three puppeteers, steals the scene.

Sadly, this production has been soured by controversy with some Asian actors complaining that too few parts have been given to Chinese performers. Their annoyance is understandable, given that the RSC has recently staged an all-Asian version of Much Ado About Nothing and an all-black Julius Caesar.

This time, the RSC has reverted to genuine colour-blind casting, simply choosing the best actors regardless of colour. It may offend some but the end result is a fine company and an excellent show.

The Orphan of Zhao runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, until March 28.

By Peter Rhodes

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