David Henry Hwang
Directed by Alex Sims
Pros: Delves into a very complex and hard-to-communicate idea with a perfect balance of levity through humour.
Cons: The last 5 minutes.
Our Verdict: An intensely engrossing play. Creates plenty of laughter and leaves you with a greater understanding of the issues surrounding cultural identity and prejudice.
Cats and wool. It’s hard to believe that these two things didn’t evolve at the same time in the same environment. It feels the same with David Henry Hwang and race: they’re inextricable. Like cats and wool, it’s an absolute delight to watch a sharp intellect wrestle with race. It’s a serious business which should be poked, prodded, rolled around in, chased out the door, partially eaten, sulked at and vomited out with breakfast, before starting all over again. Yellow Face is an enthralling sprint which does all of these things.
It portrays a real-life situation involving Hwang where an Asian is needed for a role in a play and also to act as a role model. Trouble ensues with a Caucasian is accidentally cast. It explores identity, self-labelling, prejudice and politics – the social, media and governmental kind. Thoughtfully written, it allows the protagonist to be self-righteous and right – but also wrong, vulnerable, annoying and narcissistic in a way which shows the penetrating, impossible, exasperating and needless battle of being an ethnic migrant in a fearful culture.
I have a love/hate relationship with in-the-round theatre. There needs to be good justification for putting the audience on all four sides as it puts extra strain on the actors, limits sightlines and can be devilishly confusing. Yellow Face should be seen by anyone aspiring to direct this kind of format. The cast of seven sit in the audience and switch between characters at a terrifying speed, but we’re perfectly able to keep track of them due to the very fact that they are forced out of our sightlines and that the angle we see them at changes continuously.
The acting is excellent, there were no weaknesses in any of the cast and they’re perfectly able to act in every direction and be heard and seen. Despite seeing some characters from behind, you are never deprived of understanding.
In this overly impressive play, I am still taking satisfaction from the symbolic use of lighting. If you think of Chinese lanterns, they’re made of paper, bundled together and scream ‘China’. Above the square raised stage, hang those dreadful white paper IKEA lanterns which you find in nearly every student or rental house these days. They are an ingrained sign of the Western middle class desire for style at a cheap price. I have never before associated them with Chinese lanterns, although they are practically the same. Hanging them in this way is a masterful decision as it blends two cultures and two cultural ideas together in exactly the same way that Hwang blends the idea of harmony between Asian and American together in Yellow Face.
This is an intricate and strong play and unlike many others, you won’t be reacting to it because you are buoyed by the mood of others, but because it is genuinely funny and gripping. This is evident in the body language of the audience on all four sides of the stage.
Like a cat playing with wool however, at some point you find it unravelled and all over the place, with neither you nor the cat knowing quite what to do with it. In the last five minutes this is very apparent and the author knows it. I won’t give away the game, but the way in which the ending is executed adds nothing to the play as it simply summarises and drives home the important points that, frankly, we already understood.
Nonetheless this is an engrossing, must-see play that is especially relevant in ethnically diverse London. However, it would be lovely if someone knew what to do with all that wool.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!
Yellow Face runs at Park Theatre until 16th June 2013.