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Yellow Face

Our critics rating: 
Friday, 09 May, 2014
Review by: 
Mark Shenton

Regular visitors to the National Theatre may have noticed how chaotic things are there at the moment with the main box office relocated to the middle of the Lyttelton foyer, while the theatre continues its expansive NT Futures refurbishment. The Shed theatre, put up last year at the front of the building as a substitute for the Cottesloe which is being rebuilt and re-opened as the Dorfman later this year, has recently been granted planning permission to stay open until 2017.

But if it has stopped using the name Shed and is now being referred to simply as the National's (not so) "temporary theatre" it is proving to be a bold home for the National to invite other companies to make and transfer work from elsewhere to. And now, just as Miss Saigon returns to the West End, it proves to be a Trojan horse to accommodate a wild and witty play about the controversy that dogged that show's original Broadway transfer in 1991, and the protests that erupted from the Asian-American theatre community around the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian character of the Engineer.

Pryce, of course, had already won the Olivier Award for his performance, and when American Equity initially refused him permission, in the wake of those protests, to recreate his performance on Broadway, producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show entirely. (In the end, Mackintosh won the day and Pryce would add a Tony Award to his mantelpiece).

But for Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang - whose biggest hit M. Butterfly was, like Miss Saigon, based on Madame Butterfly - the controversy, in which he was himself an active protestor, has provided fertile dramatic ground for his favourite theatrical subject around questions of identity. In 1993 he wrote a play called Face Value that was set on the opening night of a new musical called The Real Manchu, in which a white actor in yellow face played the lead instead of an Asian; but the play itself would never have a Broadway opening, closing instead during previews.

Then in 2007 he turned his own experiences around that ill-fated play and the Miss Saigon debacle into Yellow Face, a comedy which deftly blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction as it spins a documentary around those events into a wittily imagined story about facing his own casting difficulties with Face Value.

Populated by real-life theatrical figures - including Cameron Mackintosh and his casting director Vinnie Liff, New York theatre owner Bernard Jacobs and actors like Jane Krakowski (who was in Face Value) and BD Wong - it has the ring of documentary truth. Hwang spares no one, least of all himself, who also appears as his own central character (brilliantly played by Kevin Shen). But he riffs in all directions from that for a comedy that has all the skill, artifice and theatrical imagination of a play by Pirandello.

Alex Sims's production, which originated at the Park Theatre in North London last summer, is both inspired and inspiring in its sometimes dizzying, always dazzling folding together of the play's complicated and competing strands.


"Hwang jumbles autobiographical fact with fiction to comedic (but over-stuffed) effect. He doesn’t have any answers to racial questions but that’s not what he’s after."
William Moore for The Evening Standard

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