Saturday 15 December 2012
Theatre review: The Orphan of Zhao
Serving an immoral, drunken Emperor, his favourite courtier Tu'an Gu (Joe Dixon) has a lot of power, but isn't too keen on sharing it. He determines to get rid of the other three most senior ministers, especially the Emperor's son-in-law Zhao Dun (James Tucker.) When Zhao is framed as a traitor, not only is he killed but all his family are wiped out. But one last descendant remains: Zhao's infant son Cheng Bo, the titular orphan, has not been killed as Tu'an thinks. Instead, a country doctor allowed his own son to be murdered in his place, and Tu'an has unknowingly adopted the child destined to grow up and kill him.
Dixon obviously relishes the ruthless bad-guy role, and a scene of him and the Emperor (Stephen Ventura) demonstrating their contempt for his subjects by using peasants (/the audience) as target practice is nicely done. Also clearly a hit with the audience was the Demon Mastiff, a red-eyed puppet of Tu'an Gu's murderous pet, brought to life War Horse-style by the actors. Graham Turner has one of the trickiest jobs as Cheng Ying, the doctor who in many ways forms the warm heart of the play, but has to balance this with his character sacrificing his own son so that the last of the Zhang line can live. And it's interesting how effective the scenes featuring the endangered baby are made by having the doll used on stage complemented by Chris Lew Kum Hoi (who also plays an important part in Fenton's new coda) kneeling to the side of the Moses basket making gurgling noises.
One thing I wasn't sold on was the occasional interjections of song, either by Jeremy Avis' Balladeer or another of the characters. Paul Englishby's incidental music is great but the songs are less successful, and the way Fenton's incorporated them feels like a cursory nod to the style of the original Chinese plays rather than an essential part of the narrative. I don't know enough about the originals though, to say if the songs do indeed sit a bit awkwardly with the rest of the storytelling, and all Fenton's done has been to emulate that.
The Orphan of Zhao by James Fenton is booking in repertory until the 28th of March at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.