An extraordinary spat on the London theatre fringe is about to come to a head on Thursday as a six-hour-long peaceful protest is planned outside The Print Room in Notting Hill (formerly the Coronet Cinema).
It's all to do with the theatre's latest production, 'In the Depths of Dead Love', by the cult playwright Howard Barker. The crux of the controversy is that the play is set in ancient China, and the characters all have Chinese names, yet the entire cast of the production is white. This has attracted the ire of various parties – most of them from the theatre community – who object to the casting of white actors in Asian roles, declaring it to be tantamount to ‘yellowface’.
A statement on the Facebook page for the protest, organised by director Andrew Keates, says: ‘Historically, yellowface meant the practice of an actor of non-East-Asian heritage applying make-up to yellow their skin and tape their eyes so as to appear East Asian. Now yellowface is understood to mean any actor of non-East-Asian heritage playing an East Asian role; a practice that thanks to progressive and industry wide discussion is deemed unacceptable.’
The Print Room has argued that there is nothing intrinsically Chinese about the roles, saying: ‘”In the Depths of Dead Love” is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese… It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient. It has therefore been cast accordingly.’
The protesters have argued that this is itself further racist. Equity – the actors’ union – has also waded in, declaring that: ‘The Print Room’s statement is completely unacceptable on a number of levels, not least of which is the suggestion that an “English” play must be completely white.’
And so here we are: what should have been a fairly low-key fringe play has now accumulated reams of (fairly negative) press, plus an actual full blown protest. It would be nice to think somebody, somewhere, will learn something, but we shall see.
Along with other major publications, Time Out will be reviewing the show – read our verdict on Friday.