Where to begin with Opera Australia’s The King and I? After stints in Brisbane and Melbourne it has landed in Sydney, all glorious sets and crushing disappointment. The thought that comes swiftly to mind is that The King and I is a show that has been utterly failed by its creative team. Starting with Christopher Renshaw, director.
A revival of the once-lauded 1991 Australian production, which transferred to Broadway and won four Tony Awards in 1996, this 2014 production has nothing critically worthwhile left to give.
Let’s start at the top. Teddy Tahu Rhodes is playing the King, a white man performing with a thick Thai accent and aping a child’s curiosity with an adult’s powerful tone. There is a difference between “colourblind” casting and white-washing; in 2014 it is unconscionable to recruit a non-Asian to play an Asian role. More often than not, roles are not written for actors who are not white. When one exists in the canon, from the great Rodgers and Hammerstein no less, it’s time to repair the racist historical problem of the show’s casting and put a Thai actor in the role. Yes, there will have to be a large budget for an extensive audition processes (because we don’t allow actors of colour an easy road to success and mostly only grudgingly give them exposure) but if you want to put on The King and I today, you have to do it. Otherwise, there’s no way to spin it; you would be contributing to a dangerous, so-constant-it-goes-unnoticed, systemic racism in our arts and media.
It’s almost irrelevant to point out that this is a musical theatre role for a singing actor rather than for a singer who can generalise some emotions on his face, but Rhodes’ acting has never been his strength. Rhodes’ weak acting, much like the rest of the production, could have benefited from strong and thorough direction. But his acting skills are irrelevant, because he never should have been cast in the first place.
The great story of the 1991 production is that it was the first time The King and I really resolved some of the more worrying and offensive parts of the original show. This was a production that was supposed to be more authentically Thai, feature Thai language and movement, and create a more equal sense of cultural representation. What happened in the years since? Did Renshaw forget that’s why people liked it so much? Or was it never that good in the first place? Regardless, this version does nothing enlightened, is nothing enlightened, and doesn’t even try. Opera Australia’s last musical, the great Bartlett Sher adaptation of South Pacific, corrected mistakes of prejudice. This one reinforces them.
If you want to demonstrate that a character’s ideas are wrong onstage, then show their wrongness, don’t just tell it. If King Mongkut is wrong that one woman is exactly like another, then perhaps the ensemble of wives should perform with some individuality and autonomy. They are a blur of faces. They are women silenced into submission, because why stop at reaffirming toady’s racism when you can also reaffirm our sexism? It’s triply insulting that the King only changes his mind because Anna (Lisa McCune), white saviour, is clearly a complex individual, that he only reaches his epiphany because she’s the only woman that speaks, and that even alone – without the King present – the other women don’t have a discernible personality.
If Renshaw had re-considered that a problematic musical could be resolved through direction, this musical could have stepped it up and given its Thai characters some gravitas, so that every single thing they said wasn’t interpreted by audiences as a punchline. What isn’t funny anymore – and wasn’t funny decades ago either, but we all insist on giving the past a break because “things were different then” – is non-native English speakers pronouncing a word incorrectly. They’re not stupid and that’s not funny. Why would it be funny? They are fluent in one language and conversant in another, that’s a pretty good indicator of intelligence.
Did Opera Australia consider that this work is offensive? Did they consider that they were taking already limited job opportunities from minority actors? How dare any company give their audience license to mock other cultures? It is insulting to be handed that point of view, raised up like it’s acceptable. Like we’ll think it’s perfect. Like we’re complacent.
Yes, the King is supposed to realise that Western modernism is superior to Thai “barbarism”, but Anna is supposed to realise that Thai culture is just as valid as her own – but she never does. Aren’t we supposed to realise that too? The answer is yes, but again – we never do.
Dusty and overwhelmingly luxe sets that are a blur of red with elephant motifs don’t celebrate cultural difference. You know what cultural imperalism is? It’s putting on a show set in a Thai palace where the most breathtaking part of the production is the English crinoline dresses. What a subtle and sad reinforcement of Western culture.
There are a couple of highlights: Lisa McCune is an acting singer and she is radiant when she alone commands the stage. ‘Hello Young Lovers’ was great. Adrian Li Donni, playing lover Lun Tha, has an incredibly beautiful vocal tone. Too bad his scenes with Tuptim (Jenny Liu) were like cardboard, flat and lifeless. The ballet led by Yong Ying Woo as Eliza is cleverly choreographed and remarkably well performed.
But these highlights are not enough to remove the bad taste from my mouth; they do not make up for the glaring problems of this show. Theatre makers, overwhelmingly, have the best of intentions – it just is that when care isn’t taken, the final product can be so far from intent that it seems callous. Unfortunately, I was deeply discomfited by this production.