Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Theatre review: Yellow Face

The temporary auditorium outside the National Theatre was meant to have closed by now, but its success has led to an extension of its lifespan by a few years. What hasn't been as long-lived is the name The Shed, which seems to have been caught up in a copyright muddle, and as a result the venue doesn't currently have a name. That won't do, so until the National come up with a better suggestion, I'm going to call the big red wooden box Keith. Keith's first show is David Henry Hwang's semi-autobiographical Yellow Face, about a late-'90s witch hunt against Chinese-Americans, largely forgotten as 9/11 soon provided a new source of racial paranoia. The story starts a few years earlier and, having won a Tony for his play M. Butterfly, Hwang was one of the most prominent Asian-Americans on Broadway around the time Miss Saigon came to town, bringing with it Jonathan Pryce in yellowface.

There was a much-publicised outcry against a white actor being given a leading Asian role, with Hwang one of the most prominent objecting voices. In Yellow Face, Kevin Shen plays a version of the playwright, DHH, who after the fuss has died down decides to write a play about it, with a lead role he hopes will make a star of a new young Asian-American actor.

This is just the beginning of his problems, though, as with a few weeks to go until rehearsals start DHH still hasn't found his star, and begins to get desperate. When a casting agent (Davina Perera) misreads a review of a play about Japanese soldiers and invites the wrong cast member to audition, DHH ends up approving of the completely white Marcus (Ben Starr) to play his Asian lead.

The show's a fun satire on the perils of trying to be politically correct, with more than a touch of The Emperor's New Clothes as, having been presented with Marcus as an Asian man, actors and audiences alike accept it because to question it would suggest they have a stereotypical image of what an Asian looks like, and might see them labelled as racist. Hwang gamely offers himself up as the most ridiculous figure, digging himself in further when he figures out his mistake by constructing an elaborate backstory for Marcus as a Eurasian Siberian Jew. Ironically it's the all-white Marcus who ends up the most selfless friend of the Asian community, and Starr makes an appealing counterpoint, a studly-but-sweet all-American hero who finds his own identity in a completely different race.

Yellow Face shines the most in these satirical scenes, as a frustrated DHH sees Marcus usurp his own prominence in the Asian community and even hook up with his ex-girlfriend (Gemma Chan.) His reconstruction of the government investigation into spurious claims of financial irregularity by Chinese-Americans, that went after his own dying father (David Yip,) isn't as successful, and Alex Sims' production loses some of its spark in the second act.

But there's still plenty to recommend Yellow Face, with a lively cast playing a multitude of roles (the cast is a mix of white and East Asian actors but, appropriately enough, their roles are played colour and gender-blind) and an ironic conclusion that suggests the Utopian dream of people seeing beyond race doesn't look quite like we might expect it to.

Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang is booking until the 24th of May at the National Theatre's Keith (formerly The Shed.)

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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