Saturday, 12 October 2013

Continuing the dialogue...

Well this is something I NEVER thought I'd say but comments have been turned off on something I've written for the Guardian and I'm really annoyed about it. For the past two days I've been having a lengthy – very lengthy – conversation below the line (a place I generally avoid) with Daniel York, about my review of his play The Fu Manchu Complex at Ovalhouse. It was my turn to respond – and I can't, because the tiny window of opportunity for comments has closed. Hence coming here.

This whole experience has been odd from start to finish. I wasn't supposed to see Daniel's play: I had tickets to see a scratch show by Make/Shift with Chris Brett Bailey as a kind of David Bowie mer-boy (how brilliant does that sound?) plus Clout's The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity at BAC, but had to cancel because Michael Billington was off sick and Lyn Gardner had to pick up his shows so I got one of hers. So already I was in the wrong place. And then the play was just not my cup of tea: a “cod-Edwardian schlock-horror farce burdened with cock jokes and schoolboy sniggering” is how I described it in the review. Politically, it was really interesting: a representation of Empire fears of (again, my review, paraphrasing from the play) “the Yellow Peril swarming from China, a pestilence of locusts that threatens western economic hegemony” that very clearly argued that the same fear exists now, both at a macro level, in wary media discussion around what will happen when China takes over America's role as the world's biggest superpower, and at a micro level, in the lack of opportunities for east-Asians in British theatre. But the framing, the farce, the innuendo, the silliness, all got in the way for me.

There are two things I regret about my review. One: the construction, “York could have written anything, and almost anything would be an improvement on this”. I knew when I was writing it I was being rude. It was a neatly turned sentence, and it made me think about Mark Kermode's brilliant piece in the Obs recently, about how negative reviews are the ones that get remembered, and how I don't really want to be one of those writers. I'd rather be earnest and sensitive and sympathetic and forgotten than flamboyantly rude and memorable. (OK, I'm lying: of course I want to be memorable. But also earnest, etc etc.) Two: mishearing “traumatic” for “dramatic” and using that as the starting point for an overly compacted sentence that clumsily tried to communicate that a) the theatrical form used by the play felt dated to me and b) includes the words “postmodern irony” which even as I wrote them I was thinking, really? Come on, me, you can do better than that.

It was that error around the word traumatic that prompted Daniel to respond in the comments box. And I'm REALLY glad he did. It hasn't been an easy conversation – how could it be, when I've criticised his work, in public? There's quite a lot of anger in his responses, of course there is. But I don't have to rise to that. Our interaction has very quickly become a Dialogue project for me. Is it possible for a critic to write a negative review, or articulate a negative opinion, and still be able to have a useful, non-antagonistic and non-hierarchical conversation with the people who made that work? In the critical culture that Jake and I propose, non-hierarchical is key: we want to create spaces in which critics, makers and audiences (and of course those three things overlap) meet and talk as equals. I've been thinking a lot this week about X “putting your armour down”: letting go of ego, letting go of all the status and authority and privilege you, consciously or unconsciously, arm yourself with in your interactions with the world. My two-star review, his retaliation: armour up. Everything I've written to him in comments boxes, I've tried really hard to put my armour down.

As it happens, my conversation with Daniel coincided with the publication on Rajni Shah's blog of a conversation between herself and Matt Trueman about her show Glorious, which Matt saw in London a couple of years ago and basically hated. It's discursive, thoughtful, respectful, and requires Matt to be very specific about how he watched that show, in London, and again several months later in Lancaster. I cherish that conversation, in the same way that I cherish this unexpected, spiralling splurge of a discussion I'm having with Daniel: because we're all rejecting the prevalent culture, in which critics and makers are in two separate camps and critics get to pass judgement and makers are just supposed to take it. Come on: everything about that construction is wrong. We're in this world together: let's be brave enough to talk to each other, to accept each other's criticism, to really talk about the world and how we see it. Isn't that why we make, go to, live through theatre? Because it illuminates and detonates and remakes the world?

The difficult thing about putting my armour down is being aware, constantly, of sounding really stupid in my replies to Daniel. I'm OK with that, I think. We're talking about complex stuff – race, racism, stereotype, re-enactment, cultural specificity – and coming at those issues from different ethnic backgrounds. The more we talk, the more I see the world through his eyes. Not his play, the world. And the more we talk, the more we're telling people who will never see Daniel's play about the issues he wanted to address on stage, and the experience of racism that prompted him to write it. 

Another Dialogue principle: a piece of theatre, and the review it inspires, are the beginning of a discussion. So here's our discussion so far:

DY, 11 Oct, 8.42am
I wouldn't normally do this but I have to correct Maddy right at the end there. The words "dashedly" and "dramatic" are never juxtaposed in this way at any point in my script. I believe the line Maddy's referring to is Dr. Petrie's "it’s so truly and appallingly and dashedly TRAUmatic calls for sustenance" and there is no attempt at post-modernism here (though there is plenty elsewhere.

Far be it from me to criticise a critic but if you're going to quote a writer's lines at them I would've thought it good practice to make absolutely sure they're correct but then,like the rest of your review, it does rather seem that you were writing your own somewhat lurid version of my play as you went along.

MC, 11 Oct, 12.25pm
Hi Daniel - thank you so much for posting this comment, critics SHOULD be criticised, especially when we make mistakes. And I'm somewhat traumatised to admit that I've done wrong, for which a huge apology. Not for the first time, i wish scripts for new plays were made available to reviewers as a matter of course - it wouldn't cost anyone anything to email a copy of the text to the reviewer, right? And would certainly help avoid stupid mistakes like this one.

I'm interested that you think I've presented a lurid version of your play: isn't the intention that it's quite lurid? In terms of the production and design, in that it draws very vividly on stylised and melodramatic arts such as Hammer horror and burlesque; in terms of the writing, in that it's a pulp-fiction detective story? Don't worry if you haven't time or desire to respond, I'm just curious. All very best, and sincere apologies again for being a cloth-eared nitwit, Maddy

DY: 11 Oct, 2.44pm
Maddy. It IS intentionally lurid but I think you’ve chosen to focus on elements which you’ve blown completely out of proportion. The cock jokes. Only about five in the whole thing if memory serves. You may not like them but far better writers than myself have used them with far greater regularity. Shakespeare and Aristophanes to name but two. The whole of New Dr. Who (the biggest show on TV) is awash with smutty sex jokes. I don’t see you going after a multi-millionaire power-house like Steven Moffat. Instead you pick on little ethnics in pokey fringe theatres putting on their first play. I’m flattered you pay me the compliment of not patronising me but I don’t think you’ve looked terribly hard or been terribly objective.

You focus also on the opening song describing it as “too indignant for subtlety”. I don’t know how aware of this you are but the “Yellow Peril” press headlines of the period were if anything even less subtle and even a “great British writer” like Rudyard Kipling maintained that it was “right to kill the Chinaman”. The song structure is based on the overture from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, again set in “foggy old London”, where the cast sing deliberately lurid lyrics about a threat lurking in the capital. You can say it fails but I would’ve thought an experienced critic like yourself would’ve got the intention at least. Instead you seem to imply that I’ve strung these things together to try and get cheap laughs which is not what I’m about at all. Incidentally we did at one point consider putting quotes from the period (along with more recent ones like Jeremy Clarkson’s recent Morcambe Bay crack) on video during the transitions but we decided it would be patronising to the audience.
You also (like one or two others) mention “the Irish man ridiculed as a "potato-nosher clover-face". There is no Irish man in my play. There is a cockney manservant with an Irish surname who’s assumed by the representative of the establishment to be “Irish”. Every BAME actor (and indeed person) has had this experience. You are placed in a box marked “other” despite being ostensibly British. I’m not sure how you missed that.

And while you’re berating me for a lack of “subtlety” you rather undermine yourself with your own rather obvious “kung fu kick of ribaldry” swipe which strikes me as the worst kind of racial profiling.

I’m also a little taken aback that you choose to waste one entire paragraph on my bakcground arguing "for east Asian theatremakers to create opportunities for themselves" when you’re decrying “brevity” on Twitter. I honestly think you were reviewing me rather than my play and certainly not my director, my cast or my designer, none of whom merit even the briefest of mentions.

You decry the lack of “post modern irony” but when I have one character lamenting that once upon a time they were rounded out and three dimensional, another declaring that they were created from the “lurid imaginings of noble white master” and Fu Manchu him(her)self remarking that “every
conceivable cliche and trope” has been “catered for” I’m not sure how much more obvious I can be without being really unsubtle.

If I’m even more honest though I think you have entirely proved my point that elements of the establishment media seem to baulk strongly whenever East Asians attempt anything other than Suffering In China or being Swathed In Silk.

I’d be interested to see how you would ‘ve reacted if a black person had written the same play but I guess that’s hypothetical. Are you going to deny that the audience find it entertaining and, yes, thought provoking?

Only the other day Lyn Gardner was asking if theatre criticism is in crisis. I’d say yes IMHO.

PS I would’ve sent you the script if you’d asked.

MC: 11 Oct, 11.36pm
Hi Daniel – again, thanks for taking the time to comment, there is SO MUCH food for thought here...

So: theatre criticism in crisis. As is happens, I feel a lot of discomfort around this kind of review format. In fact, I almost never do it – Lyn was supposed to come to Fu Manchu, but Michael B was ill this week, so she had to take over his jobs and I took on one of hers. I feel odd about the spurious authority it imposes on the critic, the bluntness of the star rating. Last year I co-founded an organisation called Dialogue, essentially to question everything about how theatre criticism operates and begin to figure out whether we could create a parallel practice in which critics didn't write a judgement of a show but engaged in a dialogue about it, with the makers and with audiences. So yes, totally agree with you: there are people for whom the 300-word-plus-star-rating review works really well, but I think criticism can be much more than that.

I seem to be working backwards so: certainly, some people in the audience I was with found it entertaining; I wasn't with them long enough to find out if they found it thought-provoking. Yes, I think that question is hypothetical – but you saying that reminded me of Kwame Kwei-Armah (who I totally love) talking about how important it is to him to tell stories through his cultural lens. He argues constantly that by writing with cultural specificity, you create stories that have universal resonance.

This has been a useful thing to remember thinking about representation in Fu Manchu. By setting it in the era that you do, I feel like you see Chinese people not through your own cultural lens, but through the lens of the British empire. And I'm curious to know why you made that choice? Clearly I'm looking at this play through my own cultural lens: I'm a white woman, born in London, but with Cypriot parents; I've never experienced racism but my brother did whenever he got a suntan. So I'm coming from a particular perspective when I wonder what the value is to an audience to present to them Empire stereotypes of Chinese people – slanty eyes, slipperiness, exoticism – rather than reject that in favour of expressing your own cultural specificity, encouraging audiences to look through your cultural lens.

Agreed: who wants to see Suffering in China or Swathed in Silk again and again? But I spent a lot of time during the play wondering what kind of modern Chinese story you might have written, or is missing from our theatre. I noticed that you'd been part of the Royal Court Unheard Voices initiative and found that fascinating, because this is totally unlike anything I'd expect from a writer who'd been through the Royal Court. Which says a lot about expectations raised by the Royal Court, of course, but also is my way of saying I was really surprised by how old-fashioned this felt. I haven't seen a play like this for a really long time – which could be a good thing, of course – but what I really mean by that is that I spend a lot of time in fringe theatres, mostly seeing pretty experimental work. Or in the Royal Court, seeing pretty modern work. This play was neither of those things, and I wonder what direction you're heading in next?

One more thing on gaze/cultural specificity: I wonder if I emphasised the cock jokes – which in my head includes all sexual innuendo, although clearly that's a ridiculous shorthand, apologies – because I'm a woman and a feminist and generally oversensitive to such writing? To me, smut is easy comedy. But maybe that's being unfair. It's also really interesting that the flick-knife/kung fu kick metaphor communicates as racial profiling: again, is that about how you interpret that metaphorical construction from an easy-Asian perspective?

OK this is a lot of words so one last thing: thanks so much for the background info on the opening song – I love that it nods to Sweeney. I've seen Sweeney only once, about 14 years ago, hence not catching the reference. Again, it's so fascinating what this image of the “professional” or “experienced” critic suggests to people: a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of everything that ever got staged. Oh, which reminds me: your comment made me wonder whether any east-Asian critics have reviewed the play, and how they responded to it. And whether there even are any, because openings into criticism are narrow too. Another thing I argue through Dialogue is that theatre talks a lot about artist development – but critic development is massively important, too.

I've no idea if you'll have time, energy or appetite to respond to any of this; if not, I just want to say thank you for the conversation so far. This isn't a critical culture in which it's easy for makers and critics to talk together. I think it's vital that we do. And as I mentioned at the start, your comments have been really thought-provoking and usefully challenging. All very best, Maddy

MC: 11 Oct, 11.45pm
typo alert: easy-Asian!! Sorry, it's been a loooong day.

MC: 12 Oct, 8.18am
I woke up thinking: bloody hell, my reply to you makes it seem like I missed the point and completely misunderstood what you're doing. YES parallels between the weird representation of/anxiety surrounding the prospect of Chinese economic hegemony now/fear of Chinese as other then, desire to subjugate, impossibility of doing so. YES: parallels between that politics and politics within acting community. It's not that I didn't get it, the style ensures you get the substance very, very quickly. I'm asking whether there is something very slippery and difficult that happens between satire and re-enactment.

DY: 12 Oct, 9.58am
Maddy, the whole thing is a satire on the way the Western media views Chinese and other East Asian people which is stuck squarely in archaic Victoriana/Edwardiana. We are literally imprisoned in a bizarre period drama straight out of Sax Rohmer. Did you not see the “Chinese” episode of the multi-award winning Sherlock created by the multi-award winning Steven Moffatt (who perpetrates “smut” on a nuclear scale)? They updated the whole thing except the Chinese who were straight out of The Yellow Claw. They even put sinister flute music over shots of ordinary Chinese people shopping for groceries in Chinatown. Western media (and by that I mean TV and theatre primarily) is fixated on the idea that Chinese people are quaint little foreigners with strange accents. Ask any East Asian actor and their eyes will roll upwards at the mere mention of the words “Chinese accent”. And the “Chinese accent” wanted is usually more akin to the sound kids in the playground make when they’re taking the piss than any genuine recreation of someone speaking a foreign language.

So, you’re used to “experimental” or “modern” work. Rather a judgemental viewpoint I’d suggest, surely it’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it. Even then I have to ask: have you really seen lots of plays that have a Scottish housemaid played by a half-Chinese man with a beard in a white face mask delivering a monologue on colonialism? Another big theme in the play is the politics of period drama. I sometimes watch trailers on TV of all the series I will never appear in-Downton, Call The Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, Ripper Street-unless there’s one episode that requires a seedy opium dealer (though I’ll usually be considered not “Chinese” enough). Period drama is a staple of British culture. And we’re excluded from it. I have to ask again: how many English period dramas have you seen featuring an entirely East Asian cast? The play takes place inside Nayland Smith’s head which is trapped in a colonialist period-piece but it’s been invaded by East Asians and in fact he himself is ultimately an East Asian.

One of the things I found a little dismaying I have to say is that both yourself and Matt Trueman (the more established “professional” critics) were so quick to damn but seemed to have so little idea of the context or the iconography of the Fu Manchu character. I possibly haven’t made this clear enough but all the same it’s a little worrying that online blog reviewers seemed to have a far greater researched knowledge of this and therefore reviewed in a far more thoughtful way. Only last year The Times Literary Supplement posited that no other 20th Century literary villain lingers in the Western media consciousness like Fu Manchu. The idea that “orientals” (that word is always used in inverted commas) are sinister, cunning, mysterious and plain weird is deeply ingrained in Western media thought. You only have to look at the reaction to the Chinese swimmer Yi Shiwen’s gold medal performances last year at the Olympics (she was drugged/genetically modified) to get this. I even helpfully included some rather obvious lines about this but they obviously weren’t “post-modern” enough.

So I find this-“ I wonder what the value is to an audience to present to them Empire stereotypes of Chinese people – slanty eyes, slipperiness, exoticism – rather than reject that in favour of expressing your own cultural specificity, encouraging audiences to look through your cultural lens.”-baffling. They’re being “presented” as what they are: fictional creations and they’re being utterly rejected. There was originally a whole final scene where the actors came out of character and said this. We had a line where Fu Manchu actually said “You invented me”. But it just seemed way too crude and patronising so we cut it as we thought the audience was ahead of us and got this.
I can’t help wondering if we’ve done it a bit too well and that’s why you don’t get it. I’ve aped the style too well, the cast play it too well, Justin and Lily have nailed the world too well. We didn’t leave any “joins” so you don’t get the “experimentation”. CONT'D

Then there’s the implication that this stuff is “obvious” in some way. Is it? Really? If that’s the case why have you and your fellow critics not been saying anything every time a theatre company has rolled out a “yellowface” production in the last thirty years? Why was it left to us to do it last year? Do you know I had one goal during RSC Zhao-gate. It was to get every single mainstream reviewer to mention it in their reviews even if they then went on to say “but who cares about a bunch of upstart little yellow people who probably aren’t very good actors?” Because it had never been mentioned before. The arbiters of cultural taste, the custodians of theatrical excellence, the assessors of the performing arts all had a collective indifference to exclusion and blatant discrimination when it came to East Asians. How is it “obvious” when in 2013 Cameron Macintosh will not rule out casting a white man as The Engineer in Miss Saigon? And if it happens, guess what, it won’t be you lot leading the condemnation. It’ll be us again, putting our careers on the line, getting racially abused in comments forums and told to “shut up and stop whingeing”.

Smut. Again it’s a satire on the public school mentality which is obsessed with this stuff. I’m surprised though as a feminist you completely missed the meta-commentary of the Fah Lo Suee character who is a complete send-up of the whole “oriental dragon-lady” stereotype and an obvious indictment of the way East Asian women are fetishized in the West. “I am oriental damsel. Delicate, subservient and obediant. At the same time imminently untrustworthy, shallow and sly.” It’s open to criticism (like everything) but to accuse me of “presenting stereotypes” and not “rejecting” them is so wide of the mark it’s in another country frankly.

“Cultural lens”. Oh, I get it. Kwarme wrote Elmira’s Kitchen and you think I should write Chan’s Takeaway. Sorry, Maddy, not my world or my “lens”. This reminds me of a conversation at the Royal Court. I challenged Simon Godwin on why the Court never casts East Asian actors and he responded by saying “the Court would look to engage writers from those communities”. I came straight back with “But I’m not from a “community””. I’m half-Chinese. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, I can speak rudimentary Mandarin but my sensibilities are actually very British. I grew up with British TV, British theatre. But you won’t allow me to do that. I have to find my own “cultural lens”.

Maddy, I didn’t just come through the Royal Court Unheard Voices group. I was one of only two to be selected for the Studio group. Maybe the Court are more open-minded than you are. In fact one of the things I found a little unpleasant about your opening paragraph (and indeed Matt Trueman’s) is the way you somehow seem to imply that’s I’ve got a play on because I kicked up a fuss last year. Before any of this happened I’d written screenplays (one of them was fairly seriously considered by Film4) and actors like Frances Barber and Lauren Crace were happy to appear in my films for a (I regret to say) pittance. I never tried to sell this play on the back of what happened last year (though other, far less involved East Asians, did just that in the wake of it). It’s water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned and I’m more interested in the future.

Talking of Matt Trueman it’s astonishing how “indenti-kit” your reviews are. Both start with a bit about me (he calls me “vociferous”), both launch in early about “crude stereotypes” with absolutely no acknowledgement that they’re being subverted (they clearly are) and both feature a horribly crass “cultural reference” - for your “kung-fu kick of ribaldry” we get his “jokes so obvious they’re visible from the Great Wall Of China”. I have no idea what you mean by “easy-Asian” but I think it’s more than a little insulting. If Kwarme writes a play you don’t like are you going to make reference to his “African bogle dance of inanity”? Is Matt going to lament that his comedy is “so stark it can be glimpsed in the Matabele lands”? CONT'D

That’s exactly what I meant with my hypothetical question. It’s all very well thinking you’re “above” something, Maddy, but that sense of detached superiority has to be earned and in my extremely humble opinion you haven’t and it all comes across as a bit knee-jerk I’m afraid.
In answer to your question, no, there’s no East Asian theatre critic. I did get an email from a lady who has an online resource to encourage East Asian writers (Banana Writers) saying this “Each little line had a lot of thought in it - using words like "conkers" in a funny way. I also liked the deep meaning and the serious undertones of the play as a whole. How you covered important topics like colonialism and asked the question WHY people are so scared of the Chinese. You were daring enough to take it to where you as an East Asian writer wanted to go and I think the risk has paid off. I really see the difference between a Chinese (or half Chinese) writer's message on the stage compared with a Caucasian writer's message of how they think Chinese people feel in their hearts. It is a lot more meaningful and convinces me even more why we need more East Asian writers. “ Hi Ching, producer and curator of the S.E.A. Fest described it as a “landmark play”. Here’s what award-winning poet Stephanie Dogfoot thinks about it You can look also look at my Twitter feed and the @fmccomplex one to see what other East Asians think about it. You’ll also see that Lee Simpson of Improbable (“experimental” and “modern” enough for you?) completely gets it.
MC: 12 Oct, 9.30pm
Hi Daniel – once again, thanks so much for taking the time to respond so thoroughly. Since reading your comment, I've been feeling quite dismayed by the obtuse quality of my own – since before that, in fact, hence posting the additional comment this morning about re-enactment. Your response highlights something crucial: you mention a whole lot of things from popular culture – TV programmes, media coverage of the Olympics, Jeremy ugh ugh ugh Clarkson – and absolutely none of it is stuff I engage with. You've mentioned Steven Moffat twice now, and in a sense you're right, I wouldn't criticise him – because I don't even pay him the courtesy of watching his work. For all the attention I give him, he might as well not exist. All of those TV programmes you mention? Haven't watched any of them. (Incidentally, I LOVE the way you say “I watch trailers for” - ha!! So damning.) So when I suggest that this kind of representation is the Empire's cultural lens, in a sense what I'm failing to see is that it's not just then, it's also NOW.

In another sense, I'm not failing to see that at all – this is where the theatre parallel comes in, the “heaven forbid we let them play Shakespeare” (sorry, that's a vague attempt at quoting your first song). And I guess what I'm getting at is something to do with the terms of rejection. Your play re-enacts to subvert and reject – but what play would you write if you bypassed the re-enactment and went straight for the rejection?

Again, this is where my own very personal perspective comes into play. I do a lot of rejecting in my life: I don't click on Daily Mail links, I turn away from billboards with Clarkson's objectionable face on them, I avoid anything that has no place in the world I want to live in. I'm a ridiculous idealist who hopes that by starving these things of the oxygen of attention they will gradually wither up and die. You're doing something else – and again, there's something incredibly obtuse about my suggestion that you shouldn't. If you want to write a cod-Edwardian schlock-horror farce, of course you should write a cod-Edwardian schlock-horror farce! It's idiotic to imply you shouldn't do that! But I wonder what other east-Asian stories could be told from a place not of re-enacting stereotypes to reject them, but rejecting stereotypes outright to create something new. Does that make sense?

And I think (but correct me if I'm wrong) that's what you're arguing for, too, when you challenge Simon Godwin on the lack of east-Asian actors at the Royal Court. It's about not being limited to one story, one representation – whether or not you're smashing that representation. It's about being able to just be. And again, these things, Empire representation, the roots of racism, they mustn't be forgotten, it's not like we should sweep it all under the carpet and pretend it never happened: it happened, and it still colours our world in despicable ways. As I say, my parents are Cypriot, their country is still divided because of what the British did there. We have to address the legacy of Empire: condemn it, not celebrate it. On another note, I was thinking earlier today about Tarantino's Django, and its re-enactment of slavery stories, and also its subversion of slavery stories, and what an incredible challenge that film was, and also what an incredible film that was, I loved it to pieces. Art can do brilliant things in reminding us of how we got to where we are today, and where we can go next. And it's when you do this in your play, to go back to my initial review, that I see the glint of knife-sharp political commentary.

Which brings us to the ribaldry, and what I said earlier, style getting in the way of substance for me. As you rightly point out, that's a personal judgement. For a lot of people, the public school humour is going to be very funny. For me, it's just public school humour, in the realm of things I reject. OK, yes, you're sending it up by exposing its homoerotic undertones, but it's still public school humour. It's satire vs re-enactment all over again. (Re-reading this, I think: exposing homoerotic undertones? Because what, homoeroticism is inherently funny? There's something really wrong about that construction.)

Re Matt's review: yes, it IS interesting how similar they are. I actually read his review before writing mine, and was struck by how similarly we felt. I also re-read the news story about Zhao (which I didn't see), Lyn's two blogs on the need for east-Asian actors to write their own stories, plus reviews of all the shows I mentioned in the first para (of which I've only seen Chimerica, and was really troubled by its enactment, whether or not intentional, of white middle-class male privilege). I mentioned it all because it felt relevant that you were the only writer of all those who is British AND east-Asian – and yes, because this play ought to be a calling card. For a lot of people, the people who mention – including Hi Ching, who has now commented above, for which thank you very much – your play IS a calling card. It offers a distinct perspective. That's a brilliant thing, and context highlights that. At least, I hope it does.

Anyway, I'm trying to limit myself to a single comment box – although frankly, as a habitual overwriter, I salute you and your 2.5 boxes – so I'll stop there. Once again, I'd like to say how much I value this conversation. You wrote a play. I wrote a 300 word review. Between us, we've written a squillion words of comment. Theatre isn't just entertainment to me: it's my life. It gives me the opportunity to have conversations like this one, really knotty conversations in which I struggle to articulate myself, sometimes succeed, sometimes fail. And yes, it's a bit weird that we wouldn't have had this conversation if I'd laughed more at the public school humour. But I appreciate you taking that journey with me. All best, Maddy


  1. Hi Maddy, I’ve found an East Asian theatre reviewer for you I’m such a dunce. Her poetry’s so good I just don’t think of her as a critic.

    Firstly, let’s clear up one thing-

    “It hasn't been an easy conversation – how could it be, when I've criticised his work, in public? There's quite a lot of anger in his responses, of course there is.”

    I’m actually more than happy to be criticised in public. I quite enjoy it if I’m honest. I like ruffling peoples’ feathers. I’d actually like to write a play that would have ALL you critics slinging insults at me but that wouldn’t make sense box-office wise and that’s the crucial point here. It’s hard to sell tickets at a place like the Ovalhouse. It’s doubly hard with bad reviews and that’s what some of you need to bear in mind, frankly. There’s much worthy-talk about artists being free to experiment and fail but that only seems to apply to certain people. There was a production I saw earlier this year in a major theatre where frankly I’m amazed the director’s still working but of course it was given respectable 3 star reviews because essentially that’s what critics are there to do these days-wave the establishment over the line.

    Maddy, I remember you used to review for Time Out but I can’t for the life of me recall reading any of your reviews. Now we’ve had this conversation I’d be genuinely interested in what you thought of things but I haven’t been before, I admit. Matt Trueman on the other hand is a total non-entity as far as I’m concerned. His ludicrously blinkered and laughably ignorant “review” of my play is the only review of his I’ve ever read
    I don’t take a lot of notice of critics. By all accounts I’ve been well reviewed for my performance in The World Of Extreme Happiness but I haven’t read them because (unlike with FMC Complex) I don’t have to sell the play. I’m occasionally interested in what Lyn and Kate Bassett think and Andrew Dickson's interesting but beyond that I don’t bother because the fact is critics do not react or think like “normal” audience members. Their criteria is completely different. I think of you as an obstacle, Maddy. One I have to find a way of bypassing if my work is to find an audience. I’m not a massively experienced writer but I realise I need to find a way of making something for an audience that at same time will “impress” a critic. A lot of comedy practitioners talk of “comedy-snobbery” and I can’t help thinking I should’ve made the play a tad more boring and dull so you would think it “weighty” enough.

  2. Interestingly Matt Trueman managed to come up with the truly reductive and leadenly conservative suggestion that “If only York had outsourced the concept to a slapstick superstar like Sean Foley or Cal McCrystal.” In other words, “should’ve given it to a Famous White Man”, and I can’t help thinking that if Sean Foiley had put on the exact same work in a big theatre Misquotin’ (allegedly) Matt would be singing his praises about how funny and clever the whole thing was.

    “I wasn't supposed to see Daniel's play: I had tickets to see a scratch show by Make/Shift with Chris Brett Bailey as a kind of David Bowie mer-boy (how brilliant does that sound?) plus Clout's The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity at BAC, but had to cancel because Michael Billington was off sick and Lyn Gardner had to pick up his shows so I got one of hers. So already I was in the wrong place”

    This is incredibly revealing. You were all up for a night of David Bowie mer-boying with the Experimental Kool Kidz down in Battersea (where they won’t even let me Scratch ‘cos I write scripts) and you got lumbered with my “cod-Edwardian schlock-horror farce burdened with cock jokes and schoolboy sniggering”. Dear me. There you are gushing about something you didn’t even see then totalling my stuff (which genuinely makes people laugh) because of your ingrained prejudices about “cod-Edwardian public-school humour”. Maddy, I can honestly say after these exchanges that I like you but this is poor form frankly.

    FWIW BAC is everything I despise about modern theatre. Elitist, exclusive and full of Rules (no scripts). They sent me their “manifesto”. I’m convinced you have to have to a certain type of university degree to understand a word of it.

    “We should never let them act in Shakespeare”. That line really got you, didn’t it? I’m guessing it’s too “obvious” for you but I would reiterate the questions I posed in the last post I made which you didn’t address. If it’s so “obvious” why were none of you (who actually have the gift of a platform and therefore a voice) saying anything when East Asians were continually and blatantly excluded year on year out? Why were none of you challenging that state of affairs? Why was it left to ordinary actors to effectively risk career hari-kiri to say it? Believe me, every day I walk through the NT stage door I say a small thank you because this is not a profession populated by people who let bygones be bygones. Do you know that when I was in a Shanghai-set Romeo & Juliet in Basingstoke a few years ago we had letters before it even opened? “My husband and I wish to see Shakespeare the way it was intended…and certainly not Chinese”. The first all-black production at the NT was celebrated I believe. I’m in the first all EA one now. Not a word. If it’s not blatant it simply won’t get heard.

    I don’t watch Jeremy Clarkson either. The only episode of Sherlock I’ve ever seen is “that” one (and then only this year as “research”). But when it’s in direct relation to me and my racial background I think I have to take note otherwise I’m operating in some kind of separatist vacuum.

  3. “Public schoolboy humour”. I didn’t go to public school. I’m from a provincial working-class background. I was parodying “bastions of Englishness” that the Daily Mail might like us to return to via Jeeves & Wooster and Blackadder. Again, I think I caught the style a little too well for you but even then I think you’ve blown it out of all proportion. As Madam Miaow points out at least one of the cock jokes had a savage intent about racial/nationalistic stereotyping. I also played on the idea of Nayland & Petrie (with whom I tried otherwise to stay close to the way they’re characterised in the Sax Rohmer books) had real love inside them and if they were free to express that love how much happier and more fulfilled they’d be which is why the homo-eroticism is there. Classic English repression as a possible source of oppression of others.
    When you say that “of course it’s York’s choice to write cod-Edwardian schlock” but then you wonder what other “stories” I could write if I went straight to “rejecting” rather than “re-enacting” I sense a great deal of contradiction. You are effectively telling me what I should write. It’s interesting you mention Kwarme because (no disrespect) it’s basically “kitchen-sink”, innit? Yet, Kwarme having black actors in white face masks in a period-drama pastiche-ing black & white cinema, vaudeville and music-hall would be more “old-fashioned”? And all this talk of what “stories” I could write. Maybe I don’t want to write “stories”. Maybe I want to create garish performance mock establishment tropes. Or is that too unconventional for you?

    Once again I do have to reiterate a fairly simple point about “cod-Edwardian schlock-horror” which Matt & Maddy (sound like breakfast DJ’s) just don’t seem to be able to grasp. “cod-Edwardian schlock-horror” is what Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books are. Matt described it as “schlocky Sherlocky”. Err…yeah. That’s what Rohmer was doing. And that’s where East Asians are imprisoned in the eyes of UK media. Inside “cod-Edwardian schlock-horror”. So we subvert that form. Other (unpaid) online reviewers showed great appreciation of this.

    Finally, I agree it’s a “brilliant thing” thing that I’m a British East-Asian writer. You certainly didn’t make it sound like that though. My first play. Which I raised the funds for myself (have you seen those Arts Council forms? Holy tick-boxes, Batman). Compare with the reviews for The Herd at The Bush. “yes it’s this, yes, it’s that but it’s Rory’s first play…”etc but that’s because Rory’s white, middle-class, from a theatrical dynasty, just played Iago at the Nash, is clearly a Clever Chap and it’s at The Bush but this upstart trouble-maker half-Chinese bloke with an English surname in the less salubrious part of South London who is isn’t being earnest po-faced and exotic and who isn’t telling “cultural stories”? Knives out.

  4. Well here's something I've learned: my comment boxes have character limits. What a hypocrite!

    A couple of things I'd like to pick up on in here. Firstly, your note "I think of you as an obstacle". I met a playwright called Ryan Craig last year and he said something that has really stayed with me. Sometimes, he argued, a play has a natural constituency, and mainstream criticism gets in the way of that. He's Jewish, and he writes plays about and in many ways for Jewish people – but if a mainstream critic sees one of those plays, doesn't appreciate that, and slaps a two-star rating on it, it will stop those people from coming. There are issues here with star ratings (when I started with Time Out, they weren't being used), and issues here with the authority invested in mainstream critics – an authority I'm trying to reject. But there are also massive issues with the ways in which theatre is marketed, the reliance of the industry of those star ratings – which is fine when they're high, shit when they're not – and a question over how theatre might be marketed better. This, too, is something I'm thinking about within Dialogue.

    So when Anna Chen says in her blog, “If UK Chinese don't see this they'll have missed a treat”, there's something quite intriguing about that to me: what if this play has a natural constituency, and a two-star review in the Guardian is getting in the way of it? Would it be better for the play not to be reviewed at all?

    The second thing I'm interested in is your perception of BAC as: “Elitist, exclusive and full of Rules (no scripts).” One of the most challenging things in writing about theatre at the moment is not taking sides in the ongoing division between “New Writing” and “New Work”. I see so much antagonism between people who make theatre by writing plays, directing plays, whatever, and people who – for want of a better word – devise plays, and I just don't want to be part of that. It's all theatre. But I realise it doesn't look like “all theatre” when some buildings won't even let you through the door. I have a really good friend who writes plays and sometimes when talking to her I get the impression she feels a bit betrayed by my rampant enthusiasm for David Bowie merboys etc. It's really important to me to work against this perception that places like BAC are elitist and exclusive – or that, eg, the Royal Court is elitist and exclusive for people who work in different ways, who don't write conventional scripts, whatever. I feel at home in all these places: it's useful to be reminded of how they feel to people who feel they don't belong there.

    And that, I'm afraid, is where I kind of have to bow out of this conversation, at least for a bit: talking to you has swallowed up my entire weekend, and now I have to get some other work done. Thanks again for a properly thought-provoking couple of days. Oh, and it turns out I can't come see World of Extreme Happiness tomorrow because I have dance practice: I'm in a dance group called the Actionettes and we're performing on Sunday and Vera Chok is coming to the show with her friends and frankly I AM TERRIFIED. Definitely all critics should put themselves on the line like this. It's good for the soul. All very best, Maddy

  5. Sorry, Maddy, CANNOT let this go-

    “So when Anna Chen says in her blog, “If UK Chinese don't see this they'll have missed a treat”, there's something quite intriguing about that to me: what if this play has a natural constituency, and a two-star review in the Guardian is getting in the way of it? Would it be better for the play not to be reviewed at all?”

    In a word. NO.

    Is mainstream coverage the sole preserve of the (white, middle-class) “establishment”?

    You’d have us as “niche”?

    I don’t write for a “niche” audience. I write for everyone which I suspect is what bothers you because you cite the need for a “cultural lens”.

  6. Hi Daniel – I'm having to break up this reply bec my comments boxes are playing up...

    An Ikeda Quote came up in my twitter stream on Monday that felt pertinent to this discussion: “Remaining silent in the face of injustice is the same as supporting it.” One of the most challenging things about this conversation has been the extent to which it's forced me to address my complicity in the injustices you address. It's easy for me to say that the Fu Manchu narrative is irrelevant in 2013, that its anniversary should be ignored rather than celebrated: I'm not its target. I can ignore it from a place of some privilege.

    Earlier in these comments, you've written: “The arbiters of cultural taste, the custodians of theatrical excellence, the assessors of the performing arts all had a collective indifference to exclusion and blatant discrimination when it came to East Asians.” Not all: Lyn Gardner worked hard to bring that exclusion and discrimination to light. We need more people like her in mainstream media, people who will support fringe and minority and outside-London and experimental theatre practice: this is part of the change that I've been arguing, through Dialogue, needs to be forged in the critical culture. I find it interesting that Libby Purves, since being sacked, has used her new blog as an opportunity to review a show in the Ovalhouse studio about gay rights. Would she have been able to review the same show for the Times? I doubt it. That she is choosing to widen her scope on her blog strikes me as progress.

    You're right: I haven't joined in the discussions about opportunities for south-east Asian actors over the past year. There is a lot of campaigning I do to expose and challenge the way theatre is made, staged and experienced; this particular issue, I overlooked. This is why it felt so important to remind readers of the background discussion in my review. You'll note that I deliberately used the word “initiate” change: four “establishment” productions doesn't solve the problem, it begins suggesting an answer. There are other answers. Actors like yourself writing plays, for instance.

  7. Contrary to what you infer, I would have loved to have been able to report that your play was brilliant. But to me, it wasn't. Other people disagree – but my job was to review your play as I saw it, not other people's responses. It's been noted several times that I didn't talk about the acting, or the direction: I'm afraid that's because I didn't have anything particularly positive to say. I focused on your writing because the subject matter interested me, and offered lots to talk about. Do I think your writing in your play did your subject matter justice? No. Did I think it was a debate worth having? Yes, which is why this discussion continues.

    There's something crucial about Kwame's cultural lens construction that you've omitted in your most recent comment. “By writing with cultural specificity, you create stories that have universal resonance.” The first time I heard Kwame talk about this, it was at an event to discuss opportunities for BAME theatre-makers. He was on a panel with a white director, who argued that writing from your cultural lens is limiting and excluding. His response troubles me, because I'm not convinced it's not racist. I raised the cultural lens in this discussion because it disturbs me that anyone – British, Asian, anyone – should think that Fu Manchu retains even a shred of currency in 2013. Your play gives it a lot of currency: Fu Manchu dictates the characters, the style, the language, the plot. I haven't read the Fu Manchu books, on the assumption that they're bad literature. I don't think Fu Manchu makes good theatre, either.

    But again, this is just my opinion: several commentators have now contributed to the Guardian comments stream – which has reopened! WTF!!! - expressing others. Isn't it great that I'm not the final word? Whatever I think of the quality of your play, the debate is an important one – and I'm not sure how much a bland three-star review would have helped in supporting that debate.

  8. I don't know, Maddy. One minute you want to "bow out". The next you're posting in multiple locations. Here's some responses-

    “Earlier in these comments, you've written: “The arbiters of cultural taste, the custodians of theatrical excellence, the assessors of the performing arts all had a collective indifference to exclusion and blatant discrimination when it came to East Asians.” Not all: Lyn Gardner worked hard to bring that exclusion and discrimination to light.”

    I actually think Lyn would agree that she responded to what was on the ground rather than “bring anything” “to light”. And that’s what Lyn is. Brilliantly open and responsive (unlike most of the rest of you). But we were the ones who shouted about it and put ourselves on the line. Even then it was Lyn responding on her own. People like yourself and Matt Trueman are very good at pouring scorn on a writer’s first work (within two minutes of it beginning and out of sheer ignorance in your particular case) but you haven’t been so gutsy about standing up to the mainstream when they’ve cast non-East Asians in East Asian roles again. And again. And again.

    “I find it interesting that Libby Purves, since being sacked, has used her new blog as an opportunity to review a show in the Ovalhouse studio about gay rights. Would she have been able to review the same show for the Times?”

    Yep. You’re absolutely right.

    “You're right: I haven't joined in the discussions about opportunities for south-east Asian actors over the past year.”

    Sorry to be pedantic but your geographical terminology is wrong. South-East Asia is basically Vietnam downwards. It’s not even majority Chinese and doesn’t include China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea or Mongolia . The term is East Asian.

    “There are other answers. Actors like yourself writing plays, for instance.”

    Then why jump on it as soon as it’s out of the traps? This is the second paragraph of your review-

    “As soon as the cast creep on stage wearing stark white phantom masks, singing of how orientals have slanty eyes and mysterious ways, and should never be let anywhere near Shakespeare, it's clear that the satire throughout will be blunt as a sledgehammer, too indignant for subtlety.”

    Can you really not see the fatal flaw here? You’d already decided it was crap. And you didn’t even know what I was parodying. You can read my blog on the Yellow Peril if you like I’ve got pages and pages of quotes. The lyrics of the opening song are an accurate portrayal of what was being said at the time. Even now, this goes on. One the speakers at the associated discussion events, Professor Mawdsley of Oxford University, wrote a paper entitled Dr. Livingston meets Fu Manchu in the Dark Continent about the way Western media portrays China’s involvement in Africa in pretty lurid fashion. I already pointed out to you the UK media’s reaction at last year’s Olympics to Yi Shiwen’s record-breaking achievements in the pool: she was drugged/genetically modified, Chinese athletes are “robots”, Chinese training methods are “relentlessly cruel”. Fu Manchu’s imprint on Western media psyche is huge. But not in The World According To Maddy.

    “Other people disagree – but my job was to review your play as I saw it, not other people's responses.”

    I’m sorry but I completely disagree. Your job is to present an objective appraisal of the play. IMO too many of you critics are arrogant enough to place yourself way above ordinary theatre-goers. This is plainly misrepresentative. Even then you were damning inside the first couple of minutes with no enquiring mind. This is nothing short of negligent, frankly. I’m trying to imagine you reviewing Philip Larkin, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”. Bit indignant for subtlety innit.

  9. .“It's been noted several times that I didn't talk about the acting, or the direction: I'm afraid that's because I didn't have anything particularly positive to say.”

    Why is that?

    And why does your entire assessment of BAME theatre writing revolve around something Kwarme Kwei Arme said once upon a time? Is there no scope for diversity at all? Are we all to be judged by this second hand dictum? The Gospel Of Kwarme as interpreted by Maddy?

    “I raised the cultural lens in this discussion because it disturbs me that anyone – British, Asian, anyone – should think that Fu Manchu retains even a shred of currency in 2013.”

    I’ve already pointed out (at length) that this is the case. Yes, it’s disturbing but Fu Manchu IS currency in 2013. The Times Literary Supplement said so this year. Do you want me to produce a list of highly respected academics who’ll absolutely back me on this? Because I certainly can. Niall Ferguson recently wrote in the Radio Times “Could China’s rise repeat the same disastrous trajectory of Germany a hundred years ago? It’s something to ponder the next time you order a Chinese takeaway” as well as positing that they (the Chinese) “think differently” (to us).

    “I haven't read the Fu Manchu books, on the assumption that they're bad literature”

    You do a lot of “assuming” don’t you. Actually Sax Rohmer was a stunningly good writer of pulp-fiction (which you possibly consider beneath you), able to conjure a world both lurid and dream-like as well rivetingly exciting with enough twists and turns to keep anyone turning the pages till they reachthe breathless climax. Was he Proust? No, but for what he was he was damn fine. And I can say that despite the fact his portrayal of my race (one of them anyway) is deeply troubling. It’s called objectivity. You should try it sometime.

    “I don't think Fu Manchu makes good theatre, either.”

    No, I suppose that’s why there’s been at least 12 feature films and several TV series made about him. I mean, larger than life inherently theatrical characters with macabre charisma never make good theatre, do they? Honestly, you’ll be saying that Brecht shouldn’t have based Arturo Ui on Hitler next. Or is Richard III “not currency” in 2013?