It is extremely rare I find myself so immersed in a play I consciously have to step out of it and back into the real world again afterwards. It pleases me to say The Orphan of Zhao, amidst all the casting controversy, emerges as an outstanding production from the opening note to the final word.
Zhao presents Gregory Doran with his first directorial piece since formally taking the reins as RSC artistic director; he has characteristically crafted the cast into a solid unit - all clearly totally committed to the text and the production as a whole. James Fenton's adaptation is forged from many Chinese sources, creating a tightly crafted narrative which leaves us hungry for more. The authenticity of the language never once falters, which allows us to be thoroughly taken in by the play’s world.
The book is peppered with plenty of unexpected comic moments; thankfully the production is confident enough to resist falling into the easy trap of knowingly winking at the audience when the pace occasionally ebbs.
Fenton deploys some very Shakespearean elements with plenty of short, punchy, direct addresses. In particular, characters frequently repeat elements of their backstory and reintroduced themselves; this has the danger of becoming tedious but luckily it's concise enough to remain reassuring rather than irritating.
Strong theatricality is displayed throughout, never more apparent than in the many death scenes littered throughout the evening. Some techniques clearly caught the audience by surprise, resulting in many audible collective gasps. Joe Dixon brings out a deliciously deceptive and calculating character in Tu’an Gu, functioning as the main anchor point of the story.
Graham Turner, portraying Gu’s initially unwitting traitor, certainly encourages empathy with his struggle. But the stand out performances come from Lucy Briggs-Owen and Nia Gwynne (The Princess and Dr Cheng Ying’s Wife, respectively) – both women are utterly compelling when on stage, showing incredible physicality throughout. Both are responsible for several of the most emotionally charged exchanges.
There are many enjoyable supporting appearances, in particular Lloyd Hutchinson, Susan Momoko Hingley and Chris Lew Kum Hoi.
Both set and costumes, designed by Niki Turner, are carefully understated, staying true to the era of the production without a hint of updating styles. This is further enhanced by Paul Englishby’s composition (which makes full use of Chinese percussion) and Tim Mitchell’s wonderful lighting.
In short, this production serves to transport the audience to circa 500BC and lets the story tell itself. All in all, a strong opening performance from Doran as he takes over from Boyd. If this production is anything to go by, the Royal Shakespeare Company is in very safe hands.