News & Commentary, Stage

The King and I: curmudgeon or not let’s talk about race

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I was a massive champion of Opera Australia and John Frost’s 2012 co-production of South Pacific. Director Bartlett Sher recreated his 2008 Broadway production for Australian audiences, with a magnificent cast featuring Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and digged into the core of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, emphasising its robust anti-racism message. The production was a massive critical and commercial success, and I found it difficult to fault.
Fast forward to 2014 and Opera Australia and John Frost teamed up again to recreate their winning formula, with another romantic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical starring McCune (and Tahu Rhodes in Brisbane and Sydney).
Unfortunately, its production of The King and I, a remount of Christopher Renshaw’s 1991 staging, wasn’t quite as rosy. I found its representation of Thai people insensitive. So I said so, in my review.
A week later, the editor of ArtsHub, Deborah Stone, has written an opinion piece on the “ideological curmudgeons” who were out in full force in the arts world over the last week. She seems to suggest that although the representation of race is problematic in The King and I, we should simply overlook it and enjoy the work for what it is.
I wasn’t alone in discussing the racial issues inherent in the musical. Cameron Woodhead acknowledged them in his four-star review for The Age. Anne-Marie Peard spoke about them in her review for AussieTheatre. We’re not raising these matters to seem clever or morally superior, and we’re certainly not engaging in “childish outrage”. The film version of The King and I is banned in Thailand for its representation of Thai people, and the racial problems in the work have been considered at length by academics and critics alike. These are things we should be talking about.
It seems Stone has conveniently forgotten that I gave the production three stars and was generally positive. I didn’t tear into the production, but considered it on its merits, as well as its political and social implications.
I’m not saying The King and I should necessarily be dropped from any company’s repertoire. But when a company which derives 25% of its income from government grants chooses to produce a work which perpetuates racist stereotypes, questions should be asked. I can only be thankful that Melbourne didn’t have  Tahu Rhodes playing the Thai King.
The King and I is based on the highly fictionalised account of Anna Leonowen’s life, by Margaret Landon, which is, in turn, based on Leonown’s own memoirs from her time in Thailand. Her memoirs have long been known to be sensationalist, and questions over their accuracy come up again and again.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were committed to equality and outspoken critics of racism. They picked up on Leonowen’s story and wrote about other races because they were intrigued and inspired by them. But they created characters based on their limited experience with people from certain cultures, which now look like broad stereotypes. Renshaw’s direction does nothing to give complexity to those characters, and plays into stereotypes over and over again.
As I said in my review, if The King and I has substantial value beyond nostalgia, if it has something to say to audiences of today, then it’s not clear from Renshaw’s production. Not in the slightest. There are, quite simply, better options. Better, more relevant musicals with better scores. Carousel, for example (and before anybody accuses me of applying a double standard, I would always acknowledge that the relationship between the two lead characters doesn’t look so great in the 21st century) is a musical of great emotional complexity and music that rivals any operatic score.
Anybody who reviews The King and I and doesn’t at least acknowledge that it contains problematic representations of race is doing their readers a disservice. You can choose to enjoy the work in spite of these things, but to ignore them is negligent. If Stone wants to cover her eyes and ears and hum when people want to talk about the political implications of a particular work, then that’s her decision. But I don’t think that’s a satisfactory or fulfilling way to engage with art.
It all feels quite dangerous when we’re talking about a family show that features joke after joke and sight gag after sight gag about Thai people not understanding western culture. I’m just not sure what message that might be sending to the children who see the production.
Next year, Bartlett Sher is due to direct The King and I at the Lincoln Center in New York. Rumour has it that Opera Australia was originally going to have Sher’s Lincoln Center production in their 2014 season. It was, apparently, due to open in New York in 2014 and then in Australia a few months later. But things lagged behind in New York, which meant it wasn’t available. Opera Australia and John Frost went back to Renshaw’s good ol’ reliable production and cast it with their good ol’ reliable star in McCune (who I think is magnificent as Anna), applied a few more Swarovski crystals and sequins, and sat back and watched the money come in.
I’ll be watching to see if Sher can cut away at these racial stereotypes, draw some balance back into the work and recapture the core of what Rodgers and Hammerstein were trying to achieve. I hope he can.
[box]Featured image by Brian Geach[/box]

12 responses to “The King and I: curmudgeon or not let’s talk about race

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I saw the show last Thursday in Melbourne and Tahu Rhodes was playing the Thai king. His overblown and caricatured “Asian” was utterly cringeworthy. How it differed from Sam Newman applying blackface is a complete mystery to me. Strangely, Ticketmaster chose not to publish my observations on their Reviews page.

    1. Thank you for saying this. When I saw the ugly, racist yellowface that Tahu Rhodes was made up in in all the publicity material I was horrified. Unfortunately people don’t seem to see yellowface at the same level as blackface – but they’re equally abhorrent in my mind. The fact that Opera Australia thought it was fine to do this is astonishing to me, and after their slow response to the Tamar Iveri situation I feel they’re showing how ignorant and out of touch they are.
      Also, this is a company that got Anthony Warlow to pretend to be Captain Jack Sparrow in their production of Pirates of Penzance. I think their lowest common denominator methods are excruciatingly lame, even after you take away the racism and homophobia.

  2. Am I missing something here? I thought this was set about 150 years ago…different time, different values. Bowdler is now widely regarded as a politically correct, twerp.
    I suggest a po-faced, look-at-me in my morally upright, slightly frowning, smug, arbiter of social norms stance, be termed Neutzeism from now on.

  3. Firstly, DIGGED is not a word
    Director Bartlett Sher … digged into … Rodgers and Hammerstein’s…musical.
    Secondly, simple past tense is required for an act that is completed. Thus, WROTE is appropriate rather than HAS WRITTEN in the following: Deborah Stone has written an opinion piece…
    Thirdly, in what way was the Melbourne version different from the 1950s film version? Madame Butterfly is set in the past and remains true to the era in which it was set. Who would want it any differently?
    Fourthly, regarding your mention of South Pacific, I was of the opinion that the film version contained a strong racist message in that Joe Cable was allowed to fall in love with an islander, but NOT to be allowed to marry her. He could spend time with her, doing whatever Happy Talk means, but the storyline killed him off so that no way would he return home with a bride whose eyes were ‘oddly made’ and whose skin was ‘a different shade’. It smacks of Madam Butterfly and her plight – she conveniently committed suicide!

    1. South Pacific has never contained a racist message – it contains representations that can be construed as insensitive.
      The Cable-Liat relationship has its problems (she doesn’t have any presence beyond the object of his affection etc.) but the ultimate outcome is that they’re torn apart by racism and intolerance. And that IS seen as a bad thing. That’s what You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught is all about.
      It’s pretty difficult for artists to condemn racism without portraying it in some way.
      The Melbourne production of King and I is similar and different, in many ways, to the film version. But I think quite a few people would find that film insensitive were it released today.
      And yes, “digged” isn’t a word. Slipped through I’m afraid.

      1. I love how a number of critics are jumping all over TK&I for racism and then turning a blind eye to the fact that Bloody Mary was pimping out her under age daughter to a sailor!! I guess, like most self appointed watch dogs of the public conscience, they feel they can pick and choose what we find offensive. And of course OA wanted to strike while the iron was hot regarding casting! Why do we have to wait around to see how Broadway receives the new revamped production! I bet Sher would LOVE to capitalise on the awesome duo that is Rhodes & McCune and audiences over there would lap it up – I don’t doubt it for a minute.

        1. I addressed the Bloody Mary situation in my review – in the recent OA production of South Pacific, Sher did all that could be done to lessen the racial insensitivity inherent in that character by giving her a complete arc and complexity. That’s why I’m keen to see what he does with The King and I, because Christopher Renshaw hasn’t directed this production of The King and I with an ounce of the intelligence or sensitivity Sher employed. It’s not a case of picking and choosing what I find offensive – I don’t get a kick out of seeing racial minorities presented onstage in such a disparaging way. Maybe those who are outraged by suggestions of racial insensitivity should be asking themselves why they want to shut down these conversations and tell people to “get over it”. There’s been plenty of strong, intelligent, measured conversation on this subject (I don’t think anybody has called for a boycott or said that King and I should never be produced again) that can only be a healthy thing — e.g. this piece in SMH and this review. Should we just NOT talk about these things?
          And I don’t believe audiences in New York would lap up Teddy Tahu Rhodes in that role. He is an excellent singer, but he’s so poorly suited for the role.

          1. I give up!! You’re every bit as narrow minded and closed off in your opinions all those bigots you’re vilifying. And pleeeeaaase stop pretending that you – & your fellow killjoys – have not done your utmost to destroy this production (& a few promising careers along with it) with your poison pens. If you had succeeded I’d love to have given you the job of phoning the huge Asian cast of TK&I & telling them that TK&I has been blacklisted and they have been freed from the humiliation of playing stereotypes. Free to take advantage of the many opportunities available to them in Australian musical theatre. How grateful they will be, and their families. Start with the kids and work your way up to those dreadfully one-dimensional adult characters. I suppose they can always escape to Broadway and audition for Sher’s new Utopian version. Wait a minute! Isn’t he the guy that foisted the Rhodes/McCune duo on us in the first place – though I guess it’s ok for a Kiwi to take a job from a real French performer desperately waiting for a breakthrough. Don’t bother replying, I won’t be coming back to read it. I figure it would be more productive banging my head against a brick.

          2. I’m honestly wondering if we saw the same show or you were just blinded by your own prejudice which you have tried to pass off as cultural enlightenment. If you had succeeded in your goal of turning people away I would have loved to appoint you the task of breaking the news to the large Asian cast – starting with the kids. People go to see The King & I for a lot of different reasons but mostly for the incredible clash of wills – and culture – between Anna and the King. They are equals and they make an equally huge impact on each other. Renshaw did a marvellous job. The scene alone when Anna confronts the King over Tuptim was breathtaking and he also had the unenviable task of directing a lead player with little acting experience. To call his direction unintelligent seriously undermines your credibility and highlights your ingrained prejudice against this production. You don’t want people to engage with art, you want to tell them what they should think and how they should feel! Good luck with that.

  4. What is going on with Daily Reviewing? It seems that if Opera Australia, recipient of public funding, presents a production of a period piece which contravenes ( I would say, mildly) an enlightened understanding of racism, or is perceived to respond too slowly to a Homophobic Soprano, the thought police are on the rampage, and threats are made. This in a country in which refugee policy is implicitly racist. It’s no good moving the deck chairs around while the Titanic is sinking.

    1. Hi Angela,
      I’m certainly not making threats. Just asking questions about programming decisions and directorial choices. I still gave the production three stars and I’m not running about calling “boycott!”

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