Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Orphan of Zhao Review

The Orphan of Zhao
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The last production I saw at Stratford was an adaptation of the first Chinese play that was translated into English, The Orphan of Zhao. I was excited to see this because it was being directed by my favourite director, Gregory Doran, who earlier this year directed the excellent production of Julius Caesar.

The current Emperor (Stephen Ventura) and his favourite minister, the corrupt Tu'an Gu, are committed to the pursuit of pleasure, to the point where they begin shooting arrows at their subjects. Three of the Emperor's counselors despair of his excesses and two, Gongsun Chujiu and Wei Jiang (Patrick Romer and Philip Whitchurch decide to leave. The third, Zhao Dun (James Tucker), decides to stay with his pregnant wife, who is the Emperor's daughter (Lucy Briggs-Owen). Tu'an Gu plots against Zhao and eventually has him and his followers killed. Knowing that her newly born son would be killed, the Princess gives him to a visiting doctor, Dr Cheng Ying (Graham Turner), who secretly smuggles the boy away. He now has to keep the orphan alive, so that the boy can grow up and revenge his father.

The story was both mesmerising and harsh. During the play the audience gets to see many characters die or sacrifice what they held dear, so that the Orphan would live. By the second act the play began to ask the question, was it worth it? It heightened the emotional trials the characters had to face during the first 20 years of the orphan's life. The play itself was beautifully written. The beginning and end of each act were taken up by some lovely ballads, and one could not wait to hear the next. Certain characters would also have an almost poetic monologue that begun with them introducing themselves, which was interesting to watch. 

Once again Gregory Doran has proven to work well with actors. Joe Dixon lead the cast as a bullish, sneering and sly Tu'an Gu and he carry's out the character's awful deeds with glee. Graham Turner plays Dr Cheng Ying, who has to suffer the most trials when hiding the orphan, and Graham clearly showed how mentally crippled the character became as the play progressed. Both he and Nia Gwynne as the Doctor's wife provide a lot of the most poignant moments in the play. Jake Fairbrother plays the Orphan as an innocent young man who is filled with conviction as he learns his true story. Patrick Romer, Lloyd Hutchinson, and James Tucker plays the emperor's counselors, Gongsun Chujiu, General Han Jue, and Zhao Dun, all of whom have to endure many trials because of the Emperor.

The set included some detailed Chinese architecture, including lanterns, frames and round arches. Against the Swan Theatre's red brick back wall at the back, the lighting provided some warm, colorful and striking colors to create a stylistic recreation of China. There were some moments that stood out, including the executed heads that were ominously hanging from above, and a moment I will not describe but will have you flinching in shock. The early scenes included Tu'an Gu's dog, The Demon Mastiff, which was shown as a terrifying puppet being controlled by three actors. One thing that did become pointless was the repetitive showering of red petals that occurred every time someone died.

Like Julius Caesar, Gregory Doran has directed a well acted production with production values that help illustrate the world of the play. Together with a well written script the production was a thought provoking and emotional play. This should be seen at a high Top Price.

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