News & Commentary, Stage The King and I: curmudgeon or not let’s talk about race By Ben Neutze | June 20, 2014 | 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] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Ben Neutze Ben Neutze is Deputy Editor of Daily Review. He has previously written for Time Out Sydney, The Guardian Australia and Limelight Magazine.