In the early 1990s I was very interested in theatre and frequently travelled 150 kilometres from Bournemouth to London, mostly to see fringe theatre productions. In January 1991 the 17th century tragedy “The Changeling” by Middleton and Rowley was being performed at the Finborough Theatre (a small space above the Finborough Arms pub in London) by the new British Chinese Theatre Company (BCTC). It looked interesting, so one weekday I left work early and travelled to London to queue for a returned ticket. (The performances were sold out.)
I was first in the returns queue, and my initial thought was that if I don’t get a ticket, no problem, I’ll just go back to Bournemouth. While waiting I read all the reviews pinned to the wall. They were mixed, several being very positive, one or two somewhat negative, the others in between. The most interesting was by Michael Billington in The Guardian. He was broadly positive, had a reservation (more on that below), but what really affected me was his statement:
“An important principle has been established: that Chinese actors born or based in Britain have a legitimate claim on the classics.”
After reading that, I really wanted to see this BCTC production, and would have been very disappointed if I didn’t get a ticket.
(I had some interest in theatre involving – I really dislike the expression, but I can’t think of a better one, suggestions are welcomed – ethnic minorities in England. I had seen several productions by Tara Arts and Talawa, amongst others, and in a late 1980s production of Alan Ayckbourne’s “How the Other Half Loves” the central couple had been cast as a white male and a black female. My immediate reaction was “that’s unusual in the theatre”, almost instantly followed by “why shouldn’t it be cast this way”, and I then went on to enjoy the play without the casting being an issue, an attitude which seemed to be shared by the rest of the audience. But until reading these reviews I had no special interest in seeing theatre by East Asians.)
I did get a returned ticket, and was seated in the front row, which meant sitting on the first step of the raked seating, not on a seat in the other rows. It was uncomfortable sitting crouched on the hard wood, but I didn’t mind: I was engrossed by the play (which I had only seen once before, and hadn’t understood) and – especially – by the performances.
I mentioned Michael Billington’s reservation. He thought the central performances lacked passion: in words etched in my memory he wrote “Beatrice-Joanna cradled De Flores in her arms like a kindly district nurse“. Not on the night I saw it. Or at least not as seen through my eyes: this was the only time I have experienced true catharsis in a theatre. As I returned to Bournemouth I was thinking of Haydn’s Symphony 44 (the Mourning symphony) from his Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period, which I had recently bought on a cassette tape, one of Haydn’s few really tragic works.
I was so affected by the BCTC performance that I thought very seriously about writing to the company, saying how much I had appreciated (enjoyed really isn’t the right word) their production, and enclosing the cassette tape with the Haydn symphony as a gift to them as an appropriate token of the effect they had had on me. I didn’t do that (mostly cowardice on my part – at the time I had only written one letter of appreciation to artists, the subject of my next but one post), to my lasting regret. At a playreading in 2000 or so I did belatedly give a CD of the Haydn symphony to Yellow Earth Theatre – the founder and at the time artistic director David Tse had acted in “The Changeling” – but I still wish I had had the courage to send the cassette in 1991.
So, I didn’t explicitly thank the company at the time. But I did implicitly thank them: I made a point of going to almost anything that had the participation of anyone involved in this BCTC production. The result was that I saw quite a lot of very good theatre, and in the Spring of 1994 I experienced one of the best acting performances I have ever seen, which is the subject of my next post.
* Like several “ethic minority” companies I know (for example Ballet Black which is also open to East Asian dancers, and Pegasus Opera Company) the British Chinese Theatre Company was commendably relaxed about (not!) following the strict casting implied by its name: as well as British born or resident Chinese actors, the cast of “The Changeling” had Japanese and Korean-American actors.
* A driving force behind the BCTC was Susan Leong, who had done some acting for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and knew Mark Rylance: she asked him to direct the production.
* A history of the Finborough Theatre is here. “The Changeling” details are:
THE CHANGELING by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Directed by Mark Rylance
Designed by Will Hargreaves and Ultz.
Presented by the British Chinese Theatre Company (funded by The Arts Council and the Mackintosh Foundation)
Cast included: Susan Leong, Kwong Loke, Julian Lyon, Toshie Ogura, John Shin, David K.S. Tse.
15 – 27 January 1991.
“A revelation.” Malcolm Rutherford, Financial Times.
“An important principle has been established: that Chinese actors born or based in Britain have a legitimate claim on the classics.” Michael Billington, The Guardian.
* Last, but by absolutely no means least, I would be delighted if anyone who has memories of this production of “The Changeling” (performer, crew, audience, anything else!) would like to share them: I would be more than happy to collate and credit information on this.