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‘Creatives need to make sure London’s cultural diversity is reflected in their casting’

PUBLISHED: 15:32 24 March 2017

Tamburlaine. Picture: Robert Workman

Tamburlaine. Picture: Robert Workman

© Robert Workman

Chinglish at the Park Theatre and Tamburlaine at the Arcola are two current productions giving the stage to some of the capital’s best East Asian acting talent

When Notting Hill’s Print Room cast four white actors in a play set in ancient China, hundreds joined a Facebook petition and staged a peaceful protest at January’s press night.

But if the producers of Howard Barker’s In The Depths of Love stood accused of racism, the same couldn’t be levelled at two shows at The Park and Arcola theatres, which are cast from Britain’s talented pool of East Asian actors.

It took four months to find the bilingual cast for David Henry Hwang’s comedy of East West mistranslation, Chinglish.

Candy Ma, who appears alongside actors from Hong Kong, South Korea and Hungary, says: “So far I’ve been blessed with creatives open to my bilingual background.

“What happened at the Print Room was pretty closed minded which is what makes this play so refreshing. It took a lot to find the right cast, but ultimately creatives need to make sure London’s cultural diversity is reflected in their casting.”

A Broadway hit by the writer of Yellow Man and M Butterfly, Chinglish explores the cultural confusion of doing business in the East as American Daniel’s bid to secure a sign making contract in China falls foul of his ignorance of local customs and language.

Performed in English and Mandarin with projected surtitles, the play makes comedic hay with translations of mistranslations, whether it’s the mutilated English on Chinese signs – take notice of safe the slippery are very crafty – the mistranslation of Daniel’s business pitch by interpreters, or his sexual miscommunication with a Chinese woman.

Ma, plays savvy bilingual culture Vice Minister Cai: “I never paid attention to the badly translated English on signs – like disabled loo as ‘deformed man’s toilet’ – because I only read the Chinese.

“The play is funny and playful, it really captures the miscommunication between East and West but it’s also complicated with many layers unfolding,” says Ma, who has previously appeared in Avenue Q, Aladdin and Song Unsung, a Yellow Earth show about WWI’s Chinese Labour Corps.

The theatre company was founded in 1995 by British East Asian actors to develop work that explores their cultural heritage and widens the choice of roles being offered to them.

Their latest production is a gender-swapping pared-down take on Marlowe’s Tamburlaine – a character based on the Mongol-Turk Emperor Timur. Newington Green actress Lourdes Faberes, who takes the title role, says Marlowe reinvented the 15th century ruler as hailing from Iranian nomadic group the Scythians, so their production is reclaiming his Asian origins.

“Timur was Asian, his story got appropriated by Marlowe but there was no diversity in an Elizabethan audience and no way of fact checking,” she says.

“The real Timur and Tamberlaine are both conquerors but no matter how bad their actions, they believed entirely that it was for the good.”

Faberes believes the gender cross casting may “challenge common conceptions” about ascribing strength and vulnerability to male and female. But as an actor it’s more about getting under the skin of someone who would kill his own son and claim to be greater than God.

“He wants to conquer the world by whatever means necessary. He’s full throttle all the time concentrating on what he wants and what’s in his way, using whatever’s there as long as it serves him. It’s hard for me to understand that level of unkindness or lack of empathy.”

When someone suggested he may have a handshake like Donald Trump she forcefully rejected the comparison. “Tamburlaine is magnificent. He may be a tyrant but at least he knows what he’s doing, don’t defile his image with that of the orange person!”

Faberes, who came to the UK from the Philippines 20 years ago, understands that depictions of minorities have been scant or token because “most art is based on the people who view it”.

“People are putting on pressure for greater diversity. We’ve been trying to gently beat down these doors and times are changing, opportunities are coming up, whether we make them or whether they are opened by other people who want to see that happen.”

That’s why the Print Room casting was a terrible step backwards for the “small but strong” community of British East Asian actors.

“I embrace the idea that I’m an ethnic minority. There’s roles I won’t go up for like Downton Abbey and I have learned to take what’s around and be grateful for every chance. But we no longer settle for less or worry about what other people will say if we speak out. It’s less about being an actor and more about having opportunities for everybody.”

Chinglish runs at Park200 until April 22. parktheatre.co.uk.

Tamburlaine is at The Arcola Theatre until April 4 arcolatheatre.com

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