The Orphan Of Zhao – January 2013

Experience: 9/10

By James Fenton, based on a traditional Chinese story

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th January 2013

Well, this was another great theatrical experience. I’d have to say the cast haven’t come on all that much, but as they were pretty close to perfect when we saw the second performance, that isn’t an insult. They’ve taken things up a notch, the story-telling seemed even clearer (but perhaps that’s just our familiarity?) and I noticed a few extra details which are worth noting up. Otherwise it was just as good as before, and with a substantial audience, though sadly still not a full house, the atmosphere was great.

The beginning had changed slightly. The cast processed onto the stage after forming up at the back, which took a few minutes. Then they stayed on stage for the first lines of Tu’An Gu’s opening speech. The Emperor was standing behind Tu’An Gu with the rest of the court bowing to him, which did at least give us some idea of who was who at the start, and then they left the stage fairly briskly so that Tu’An Gu could continue to entertain us with his villainy. He stood, holding his helmet in one hand, and said “To be…”, which amused us regular Shakespeare watchers very much. The dog was introduced to us again and was just as vicious as before, although we noticed the trainer had managed to stop it thrusting its nose into Tu’An Gu’s crotch.

When Zhao Dun was offered the three suicide options, I spotted this time that the Emperor, a nasty piece of work, was standing on the far balcony observing the ritual. I didn’t notice this last time, but he may have been there. Skipping further on, I understood tonight that the severed heads were actually the heads of the court doctors who had been executed so that they couldn’t betray the Emperor, presumably by hiding the Princess’s baby. While our position at the back round one side did seem to reduce the volume of some of the lines, I was able to follow the story perfectly well, and some points such as this one came across more clearly; whether this is repetition, clearer delivery or some change to the dialogue I have no idea.

The sniffles started earlier tonight than last time; knowing the story I found the difficult choices the characters had to make very moving. When Cheng Ying’s wife had to give up her own baby to raise another woman’s child, I felt her suffering. If I’d had a box of tissues with me I might have used them all; as it was I had to ration myself to a single pack of pocket size tissues, but they did the job.

At the start of the second half, I remember in the previous performance that Cheng Ying said some lines about allowing Cheng Bo one more day as a boy – that didn’t happen tonight, it was all down to the ballad singer. I was in floods of tears all through General Wei Jiang’s confrontation with Cheng Ying – I found Cheng Ying’s predicament particularly moving – and from there the staging was as before. One detail which Steve had spotted last time – the petals fell for every death except Tu’An Gu’s. There were a few petals during Wei Jiang’s takeover of the Palace Guard which presumably represented the Emperor’s death, and I realised the number of petals related to that person’s ‘goodness’ – Cheng Ying had a huge cascade of petals at the end – mega sniffles!

This is such a great production that it deserves full houses and standing ovations every night. I don’t know if it will get them, but we are looking forward to seeing this again in a couple of months, so 2013 is off to a very good start.

[Sadly missed the third session – car problems. 25/3/13]

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

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