The Print Room’s production of In the Depths of Dead Love by Howard Barker – controversial for the reasons stated here – has obviously been quite an emotional experience for a lot of people. Some of them tweeted in response to our review, in which our writer Tim (a freelancer) said he didn’t think the play was racist, and clearly a lot of people has a problem with that statement, whether because they feel it is racist or because they feel Tim was looking for the wrong kind of racism, ie somebody said ‘nobody said the play was racist’, meaning it’s the non-casting of east Asian actors in a play notionally set in ancient China that's the problem, not the content of the play per se.
Anyway, I totally get people’s reasons for having a string reaction but don’t especially feel that I can really reply very meaningfully to people tweeting @TimeOutTheatre in response in the way I tend to do when my own reviews annoy people because I didn’t see the show. But I do hate it when corporate accounts just ignore an issue that people are complaining about, hence I have written this. If you want to try and talk to Tim about it on Twitter please do, but he doesn’t Tweet very much. Or alternatively, post a comment under the review, if that doesn’t feel too awful and corporate a suggestion.
Did I duck what should have been a personal responsibility by not going to see it? I think one of the maddening elements of the controversy around the show is that it’s not a piece of theatre that would have got much attention had there not been protests, because neither The Print Room nor Howard Barker are big deals in 2017. If I had gone out that night (I had to stay home to babysit as it happened) I'd surely have felt pretty good about instead seeing the brilliant The Convert, which was coincidentally having its press night just around the corner at The Gate, a much more significant theatre with a clear, positive commitment to diverse casting (The Convert has an all black cast).
(Whitey McEgo aside: The last thing I should probably do is wade into the actual controversy but whatever: from my own understanding of the play and the issues I’d probably disagree with Tim and say the most culpable party is surely Barker. My understanding of his intent with the play notionally being ‘set’ in ancient China is that it was a deliberate distancing device and that his assumption is that it would have a non-east Asian cast (it was staged on Radio 3 a couple of years ago with another all-white cast). To my mind there is clearly something orientalist about equating ‘Chinese’ with ‘distance’, even i Barker didn't give it a huge amount of thought.
But a major element of the protest has been about the play denying east Asian actors east Asian parts. Which is fair enough but if the playwright’s actual intent/expectation was that his characters living in ancient China with Chinese names wouldn’t be played by east Asian actors, then I am surprised more ire isn’t being directed at him (and it seems very apparent from today's Guardian interview with him that he has not been the victim of malicious casting directors). He is the one who has used the idea of the orient ‘other’ as a device. The Print Room went along with it, and while I think they probably made a mistake putting the play on at all, I’m a bit dubious about the implication underpinning aspects of the protest that the play would have been fine if it had had an east Asian cast – surely this would be at best a subversion of a dodgy play, at worse flattering the playwright. (There is something vaguely black comedy-ish about a protest for the right of actors to be cast in a bad, possibly racist Howard Barker play.)
I wonder if an element of the protest being directed so vehemently at The Print Room – which has admittedly dealt with the entire situation terribly – rather than Barker is more a general vocalisation of annoyance at the failure of British theatre to representatively cast E Asian actors, rather than because it is the most forensic way to protest this particular production. That's fair enough though: if a rubbish Howard Barker play can provide a springboard to a wider industry problem than the casting of one not-very-good fringe play, then that’s probably a step up on most rubbish Howard Barker plays.)