The most exciting aspect of the world premiere of Howard Barker’s new play is the “Yellowface” controversy. There was a quiet group of protesters on press night, opposite the theatre, holding up placards and handing out flyers to express their dismay. A play that is set in ancient China with characters called Mr Chin, Lady Hasi, Lord Ghang, and Mrs Hu features an all-white cast. Why? The theatre states that the actors cast were the best choice for this production. The protesters claim that the Print Room did not even audition actors of East Asian descent. It seems to me that Howard Barker, who approved the casting, just wanted to work with actors he already knew well from past collaborations – Jane Bertish, James Clyde, and William Chubb. Of course there is the possibility that the writer meant to provoke with his casting decision as making his audience feel uncomfortable has often been a hallmark of Barker’s work and his “Theatre of Catastrophe”.
Considering that diversity has been a very sensitive issue for some time, Howard Barker could have avoided this controversy by setting the play, based on a 2014 Radio 3 drama, in an imaginary country using made-up names. This would not have made any difference to the play as the Chinese background does not add anything to a fable so abstract that it could take place anywhere.
The play tells the story of Chin (James Clyde), a poet who was exiled from the Imperial Court for extravagance. For the past nine years he has scraped a living as the Master of the Bottomless Well – charging local suicides for jumping to their deaths. The wealthy but desperate Lady Hasi (Stella Gonet), a regular, cannot bring herself to taking the final step and keeps returning every day, paying “a tax on cowardice”. When Lady Hasi’s husband Lord Ghang (William Chubb) promises Chin his life back for “shoving” his wife into the well, Chin rejects the offer because he is appalled by Lord Ghang’s choice of words: “No man who loves somebody says ‘shove’.” Yet when Lord Ghang makes his proposal to Chin, the nature of the well shifts and becomes more dangerous for its proprietor.
Directed by Gerrard McArthur, this production features a good cast and there is often beauty in Barker’s language. However, comedy does not seem to be his forte and the ninety minute running time feel much longer. The cryptic discussion about assisted suicide and death goes on much too long and one simply loses interest.
Justin Nardella’s set is elegant yet sterile – a circular well covered by a lid that is pulled up with massive chains dangling from the ceiling at the beginning of the performance revealing the well. The floor is held in pale grey and Adrian Sandvaer’s lighting gives the stage a warm glow.
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
In the Depths of Dead Love is playing at the Print Room until 11 February 2017