This is a first stab (an essai in the proper sense) at what will eventually become a chapter about the London production of Here Lies Love as part of my current book project, Men Without Shadows: Performing East Asian in the United Kingdom. All comments are really valuable!

The title, maarte, is a Tagalog word that means ‘show-off’ (from the Spanish-derived arte, art).

Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos

Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos

A colleague from the Philippines told me a story about what Imelda Marcos gets up to on the weekends. ‘Did you know’, he said, ‘she goes to Greenbelt [a shopping mall in the business district of Makati, Manila] and walks around with her bodyguard carrying an umbrella over her. If someone waves at her she tells her guard “100 pesos”, and the guard gives it to the person.’ But does she actually do any shopping? I asked. ‘Not really. She just goes so people can see her.’

This useless performance of self is fundamentally Marcos, for Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines and former Governor of Metro Manila from 1975 to 1986, is the embodiment of the theatricality of politics. When I talk about the theatricality of politics, in no way to I mean to suggest that the Marcoses or Martial Law was ‘just a show’, that is, not ‘real’ or actual. Rather, I use it to draw attention to the way ‘appearance’ and the darker corollary of ‘disappearance’ oscillates throughout all politics, despotic or not.

Here Lies Love, recently opened at new Dorfman space at the Royal National Theatre, points to the theatricality of politics better than any other production I have ever seen, and perhaps also says something about the politics of theatricality. David Byrne and director Alex Timbers’ most marvellous conceptual gesture is to apply an excess of theatricality to the story of a woman who lived her life (and continues to live it) as a series of theatrical tableaux.

The number 'Please Don't' in Here Lies Love. Imelda's costume is one of many inspired by the 'terno', the Filipino traditional dress that Imelda wore.

The number ‘Please Don’t’ in Here Lies Love. Imelda’s costume is one of many inspired by the ‘terno’, the Filipino traditional dress that Imelda wore.

Here Lies Love is stunningly good. It is better than anything else on stage in London at the moment. It is fun. It is critically engaged. And it is important.

This comes as a bit of a relief. When the ‘Imelda Marcos Musical’ was announced at the National, I was ready for it to be terrible. I prepared myself for worst-case scenarios about the show itself—would it simply be a celebration of a monstrous couple that killed so many? Would British audiences know this history? Would they just dance happily along? Would it be Evita in Manila? I listened to the New York cast recording but I couldn’t tell if it was a critical of the Marcoses or not. I had other worries—would it be full of yellow face casting? Would Denise Van Outen be cast as Imelda? Would the newspaper articles about it use racist puns in their headlines? Then the cast was announced—the first all-East Asian cast I have ever seen outside of Asia. My trepidation turned to excitement. On the day of the performance I felt overwhelmed by the significance of it all: I am going to the Royal National Theatre in London, to see a show about the Philippines. The National was staging Philippine history. ‘Please don’t mess this up!’ I tweeted.

It’s hard to communicate what it felt like to see Philippine history embodied in this way in the context of National, and to see Filipino/as and East Asian actors—that is, people who look like me—doing the embodying. It’s almost embarrassing to admit how emotional I felt. But: for a long time, the only time I heard ‘the Philippines’ spoken in the UK media was as the punch-line to a joke by a stand-up comedian or television presenter: ‘something something, Filipino houseboy.’ Or worse, ‘something something Filipino hooker.’ The Philippines seemed to be a catch-all signifier for ‘third-world’: it stood in for poverty, sex tourism, corruption, and sweatshops. I remember wearing a t-shirt I had bought in Manila (at Greenbelt, incidentally), which advertised the 2011 Manila Film Festival and someone thinking it was a joke. Surely an impoverished country like the Philippines couldn’t have a film festival. When I pointed out that indeed, though I hadn’t actually attended it, 2011 was the 37th Metro Manila film festival and that the Philippines had a rather large film industry, he responded with a laugh that they should sort out their shanty-towns first. There was a clear implication in this hypocritical positioning—not for the third world the luxuries of the West, get rid of poverty first, then we’ll talk.

Here Lies Love ruptures this paternalistic and patronising discursive network by throwing at in an excess of theatricality. The show is so sensorially over-stimulating that it is impossible not to be swept up by its affective invitation. In doing so, it interrupts the colonial narrative of the Philippines (and other countries of the Global South) as a place to be saved. Of course the Philippines has a lot of poverty and a lot of inequality. Here Lies Love does not show us the slums and the barrios. Instead, it embodies the political processes by which poverty and inequality come about.

This is the politics of theatricality that Michael Billington’s three-star review of the piece fundamentally misses. Billington laments the musical’s lack of a book, writing ‘I came out feeling that such a subject craves more complex treatment.’ While he acknowledges that ‘a musical is not a history lesson’, he is disappointed that ‘we never fully understand how the Marcos regime survived as long as it did.’

This is false. We find out exactly how the Marcos regime survived—through a combination of state violence and the manipulation of appearance. While I was initially sceptical of Philippine history presented as a series of music videos, having seen the performance I suggest that this form is precisely how the history of Imelda Marcos should be presented. Alex Timbers’ staging and Annie-B Parsons’ choreography understands this intrinsically.

When we first see Imelda, portrayed by Natalie Mendoza in one of the best musical theatre performances I have ever seen, she is static, kneeling in a blue dress, in front of Peter Nigrini’s projection of Leyte, Visayas, in monsoon season. She sings the first verse of the title song in this tableaux vivant, the costumes and sepia-toned video creating an image of nostalgia for the story of the ‘plucky girl from the village.’ But it is clearly an ironic image, as the female ensemble appear behind her, carrying parasols, dancing in sync, as Mendoza’s voice soars into the chorus: ‘I know that when my number’s up / When I am sent to God above / Don’t have my name inscribed into the stone / Just say / Here lies love.’

The platforms of David Korin’s set function almost as runways in a fashion show, as those on the dance floor are forced to look up at the performers above. The costume changes are lightning quick (in one number Imelda and Ferdinand’s wedding clothes are literally ripped off to reveal matching polka-dot swimming costumes). As the musical progresses Imelda slips further into despotism, but the performance always keeps her emotional life and psychological interiority at bay. The public persona is what matters and the power of the production comes from the way it seduces the audience into Imelda’s managed world. We are metaphorically being handed 100 peso notes from her bodyguard, and we accept them. The song ‘Solano Avenue’ is a good example of the negotiation of the ‘real’ through the theatrical. In it, Imelda confronts her old friend and maid Estrella Cumpas (Gia Macuja Atchinson), who raised her as a child, about an interview Estrella has given on TV (the song is literally about Imelda trying to manage her public persona). The lyrics skew towards the maudlin (‘When they teased you on the street / When they hurt you deep inside / To me it was that you came running / And I held you when you cried’), but it is staged as song, with choreography that reminds the audience of R&B classics such as Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy Is Mine.’ Throughout the show the audience’s emotional investment is held at bay, that is until the final moments, as a blunt, bare, and shattering coup-de-theatre allows the voices of the People’s Power Revolution (EDSA Revolution) to be heard.

Through its excess of theatricality the show becomes Imelda’s life as she believes it to be, as a theatre of beauty, and love. But throughout this theatrical manipulation, a counter narrative emerges, as Dean John-Wilson’s Ninoy Aquino moves from a charismatic popstar to a much more naturalistic performance towards his assassination.

Theatricality and Politics

Defining what ‘theatricality’ specifically is can be difficult. We generally think of it in pejorative terms—something showy, over-the-top, not simply doing, nor (as Richard Schechner would put it) ‘showing doing’, but really showing doing. It is the exclamation point on the end of the sentence. It is the surplus sitting between the signifier and its reception by an audience. As writers such as Hans Thies-Lehmann and Samuel Weber have conceived of it, perhaps it the quality of excess itself that cannot be contained by representation.

'A Parthenon for Imelda' - the enormous CCP (Cultural Centre of the Philippines)

‘A Parthenon for Imelda’ – the enormous CCP (Cultural Centre of the Philippines)

The Manila Film Centre, said to be haunted by 129 workers whose bodies were encased in the concrete foundations after an accident.

The Manila Film Centre, said to be haunted by 129 workers whose bodies were encased in the concrete foundations after an accident. 

Theatricality as excess mattered (matters) to Imelda Marcos, in ways both metaphorically and quite literal. As Governor of Manila, she reshaped the sprawling metropolis into one that would project a modern face to the Philippines and attract the flows of capital. Part of this project was the construction of The Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP), a building that ran 35 million pesos over budget and was finished with the assistance of U.S. loans of around 7 million USD. The Manila Film Centre (part of the complex) is said to be the most haunted building in the Philippines due to an accident wherein during its construction 169 workers fell and were buried in quick-drying cement, their bodies still into the foundations to this day. (Appearance is accompanied by disappearance). For Marcos, the performing arts were essential to showcasing the face of the Philippines, and this building, what Aquino called ‘A Parthenon to Imelda’ was part of the theatre of global politics. In a similar oscillation of appearance/disappearance, Marcos’ reinvention of Metro Manila created, according to Cultural Studies scholar Neferti X. M. Tadiar, an archipelago of islands connected by flyovers. These flyovers both allow traffic to pass directly over the barrios but also serve to illustrate the new way residents of Manila were to imagine themselves and to perform: as discrete selves, in flows of traffic within a free flow of commerce. The fact that, as anyone who has been to Manila knows, these flyovers and new highways immediately became choked and blocked with traffic is perhaps an ideal illustration of the contradictions of neoliberalism.

Manila flyovers

Manila flyovers 

The point however, is that theatre is not just ‘show’ for the Marcos regime but an actual strategy of politics. As Tadiar writes:

In its bid to join the international community of advanced nations, the Marcos regime launched a program of economic development that was export-oriented and foreign-capital-dependent. To attract foreign investments, it built five-star hotels, an international convention centre, a cultural centre, specialised medical centres, and numerous other “beautification projects”, all under the supervision of the MMC. […] Hence, although the city was Imelda’s personal domestic showcase, it was beautified for the eyes and pleasure of foreigners and to attract the flow of foreign capital. (Tadiar 1995: 298).

If we consider the specifics of the history of the Marcoses, then, if we extricate ourselves from a colonialist narrative of third-world dictatorship and first-world democracy, we see that the theatre of politics that the Marcoses created was highly seductive. It was a theatre that the West, also, was deeply imbricated in. This is why the excess of theatricality of the immersive musical form is both allegory and vehicle for communicating the affective nature of populism, something that either the more realist ‘book-musical’ or naturalist representation cannot properly capture. The gimmick is to tell this history as a disco. The coup is to show that it really was disco.

Here Lies Love’s concept also ties into several aspects of Filipino performance. While the immersive dance floor experience is reportedly a nod to the fact that Imelda converted one of her New York properties into a disco, it also resonates with the very popular forms of variety television in the Philippines – shows such as Party Pilipinas, ASAP and Eat Bulaga, which feature music (including many covers of US hits), comedy and other ‘acts.’ The party atmosphere of these programmes show a pleasure in performance, the labour of ‘being theatrical’, putting on a show. This is also evident in the history of ‘serious’ theatre companies in the Philippines, such as the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA), which was actively anti-Marcos, which employ a wider palette of theatrical tools than our categories in the UK might often allow. This includes, for example, the use of pop music and dance in a show about Overseas Foreign Workers (The Silent Soprano, 2007-2008), which Anril Tiatco writes about in a 2013 article for Asian Theatre Journal. The multi-disciplinary and ‘variety’ aspect of all these performance forms seem to inform the frenetic excess of Here Lies Love, which borrows from both Western modes of music and dance as well as at times seeming to borrow the gestural vocabulary and arm positions of traditional Philippine dance forms such as tinikling and singkil. 

Rather more deeply, I also want to argue that Here Lies Love resonates with Philippine theatre scholar Doreen Fernandez’s concept of palabas. In Tagalog, palabas simply means ‘show’ or performance, but Fernandez points out that labas means ‘outside.’ Palabas can therefore mean ‘performance’ but also ‘outwardness’, an outwardly directed energy that, as Fernandez suggests, begins from the individual (actor) but radiates out to the community. Here Lies Love is an entirely palabas show: showy, but all about the ensemble; centred on the authoritative central performance of Mendoza but tied to the sociality of the dance floor.

So what is the point that this excess of theatricality makes? For me, the refusal of the realist representation is also a refusal of the traditional way by which the narrative of the colonizer/colonized is rehearsed and staged. A realist representation—even one which focused on the heroes of the People’s Power Revolution—gets caught in a narrative trap in which the third world needs saving. What Here Lies Love, with its all-East Asian cast, does instead is bring the agency of East Asian characters, and more importantly, East Asian actor to the stage. The theatrical excess refuses a regime of representation by which the East Asian actor is becomes only a signifier for Otherness. It highlights the craft and skill of the ensemble, foregrounding the labour of their performance, the craft of constructing the spectacle.[1]

Since 2010, Imelda Marcos has been a member of the Philippine House of Representatives under the government of President Benigno Aquino III, Ninoy’s son. According to a friend in Manila, the Marcos mythology is currently experiencing resurgence, with their image again becoming quite chic, a testament to the power of the politics of appearance. One might expect Here Lies Love, for all its showy excess, might perform this same chicification. In the end, it is because of its theatricality, that it does exactly the opposite.


[1] A related point is the way that these East Asian characters really trouble stereotypes. This is particularly the case in its depiction of East Asian masculinity in the characters of Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista) and Ninoy Aquino, which are as far from the asexual stereotype familiar in Western media as you can get.



If you are familiar with any one work of the late author David Foster Wallace, it is likely to be his commencement speech for the 2005 graduating class of Keynon College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio. The audio recording of the speech has been fairly popular on YouTube, and the transcript of the short speech was published as a slim volume called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, on Living a Compassionate Life, by DFW’s regular publisher, Little, Brown, to be dutifully given to every college and high-school grad until the end of time.

If you were unfamiliar with this before, you might be now, because the speech has been turned into a 9 minute ‘videogram’ by a group called The Glossary, and millions have been sharing this new, ‘excerpt’ on Facebook and Twitter. The Glossary has taken the speech, shortened it, illustrated it with actors, added music, and in doing so, completely missed the point.

The problem is the mode of representation, a kind of theatricalised literalism of a conceptual or philosophical enquiry, and the seeming incompatibility of the two forms. Therefore, the video as adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s speech raises for me a number of interesting issues regarding the limits of (theatrical) representation, the incongruity of concepts and embodiment, and the desire for packaged profundities over the work of thinking, which, in a way is precisely what DFW is trying to warn against in the video.

Firstly, here is the original:

(Part 1)

(Part 2)

And this is the adaptation by The Glossary:

For the purposes of this post, I will refer to the original commencement address as ‘The Speech’, and The Glossary’s adaptation as This is Water – after all, the phrase ‘this is water’ merely refers to the small joke DFW bookends his address with. I doubt he ever intended it to be the title. The Speech is an explication by example of a simple but profound idea: that much of life is driven by forces outside of our control (jobs, institutions, the desires of others) and therefore conscious awareness of our own thoughts and how we construct meaning out of the world and the others in it is the basis of freedom. One’s ‘default setting’, DFW argues, is set to perceive the world as centred around the self, and therefore a situation like a crowded supermarket can seem deeply, ‘personally’, unfair. It’s similar to Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of the encounter with the face of the other being the condition of ethical action, or any other number of philosophers who have written on intersubjectivity – which is not surprising, considering DFW’s background in philosophy (his first degree). 

Why does The Glossary’s This is Water so badly miss the point of The Speech, then? Firstly, there is their notable exclusion of any of The Speech’s material on a liberal arts education. The point DFW makes is that the old platitude that university education (especially in the arts) is meant to ‘teach you how to think’ has some truth to it. That: it really means ‘learning to exercise some control over how and what you think.’ [1] By removing this framing, The Glossary effectively remove any reference to where these abilities of mindfulness and awareness are meant to come from: education, the skills of reading deeply, thinking critically. The Speech is made into a sermon, to be followed and reflected upon like a horoscope or one of those Our Daily Bread pamphlets.

Contributing to this sanctifying of DFW’s words as delivering objective truth-content is The Glossary’s use of cartoony subtitles (in a indie-movie, hand-drawn font) that flash up in the frame whenever ‘SIGNIFICANT WORDS’ are said. For example, at 7.28 DFW’s voice discusses ‘real freedom’, meaning for us to question what freedom is, &c. The subtitle that flashes above the ‘thoughtful’ actor’s head is ‘(Real) Freedom: Understanding how to think (see also, choosing)’. The subtitle’s amateurish, hand-drawn quality combined with its invocation of a dictionary suggest something strikingly opposite to DFW’s intention. It says, ‘This is the definition of real freedom’, and worse, ‘don’t trust what you’ve heard, listen to this. This is real wisdom.’ Worse yet, at 5.29, as DFW says ‘please don’t think I’m giving up moral advice or that you’re supposed to think this way’, a subtitle flashes up reading ‘You’re supposed to think this way.’ Which, I imagine is just sloppiness and sophistry rather than a subliminal message.

But secondly, and more importantly, beyond the Garden State tweeness of the subtitles and music, The Glossary’s use of actors and their mode of theatrical literalism communicate some very unexpected and distasteful subtext to The Speech. This is Water left a rather sour aftertaste in my mouth. By embodying the words so bluntly, so literally, This is Water brings out infuriating class prejudices that were not present (or at least, as noticeable) in The Speech. The speculative universal ‘you’ of The Speech’s second-person voice is suddenly recognisably a particular ‘type’: white, white-collar job, middle-class preferences, male (and later on, female – he finds his other half in the supermarket).

I certainly do not recognize myself in that ‘universal you’ made ‘particular you’ in This is Water but, I would wager, neither would many of the people addressed in that graduating class at Keynon.

Consider the moment from 7.08 to 7.10: above the suggested din of the supermarket, with its stressed out single mothers, crying children, and harried precariat, we see the handsome white male salariat worker and the pretty female white salariat worker share a look. As they meet eyes the swell of music tell us that they are (as suggested by the words) rising above the rabble, able to cope with this scene of proletarian existence because they are mindful and can ‘choose’ what to think. But what the image suggests is that they are able to cope with this scene of proletarian existence because they are going to go home to their respective two-bedroom flats to cook risotto and watch Netflix and maybe shop for furniture online. The signifier is too small for what is being signified.

At 7.40 our salariat heroes leave together – one notices that no moments of exchange (bar, one assumes, a market transaction) takes place between the middle-class and working class characters. The working class characters are defiantly ‘othered’ – women, people of colour, older persons, overweight bodies. By representing the bodies of the working class presence in this way, the video reproduces accepted prejudices about what class looks like.

And that’s the thing. It’s really introductory semiotics: when words are published, and read, the reader recognizes the signifier and connects it with what is signified – with concepts such as ‘freedom’ or such, then it is always a political question of what determines the contact of that signifier (this is why Žižek/Lacan’s concept of the point de capiton, or ‘quilting point’ – the thing that holds together the network of signifiers – is so useful in ideological critique).

Put the speech into performance, though, and something else happens – now, the words signify, but they resonate in the event of performance with the bodies of those present. Crucially, Wallace, who was a middle-class white male, and those in the convocation ceremony at Keynon. This does not determine the meaning of the words, but it gives them weight and form as part of an event. The graduating audience would likely weigh up their relation to the words in terms of their own experiences (spurred by Wallace’s rhetorical flourishes – ‘Consider’, ‘I submit to you’ – which provoke this sort of analysis) and will be looking around the room to form a picture of the ‘you’ that is being addressed. This ‘you’ becomes an ‘us’, which is different than ‘them.’

In video, however, the signifiers are literally imagined by the images on screen and the actors (and to a certain extent, the music). In effect, it says – here is what this means – don’t ask, don’t look, don’t analyse. This is what ‘you’ look like. And ‘you’ are not ‘them.’

This type of reading, of course, is one of the skills that a liberal arts education is meant to develop – the ability to inhabit language and use it in ways that perhaps challenge the typical modes of meaning. Heidegger famously called language the ‘House of Being’ and so a liberal arts education I suppose is like Grand Designs. In other words, I’d hope that any of the Keynon class present at that convocation, or any other, would be able to look at The Glossary’s This is Water and see past its sophistry.

[1] Wallace, D.F. (2005). This is Water: Some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion, on living a compassionate life. London: Little, Brown. p. 3.

UPDATE: So, I clicked on the Upworthy link again to finish writing this post, and an update on the bottom of the page said that the original video had been taken down by the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. I found another copy on YouTube. There is a petition, apparently, to have it put up again, because it ‘has an important message that serves a real public interest.’ When we miss the point, we really miss the point.

Back in August, when things are generally quiet and academics are trying to extract the last remaining drops of research time from the summer, this little lump of coal was dropped in the collective stocking of the humanities. It’s Steven Pinker’s ‘An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’ (according to The New Republic, which published the piece). At the time, I tweeted: ‘Lots of people are going to fawn over this piece of ideological bollocks… Don’t be fooled: same old crap’, which I will admit is not the most mature response. I was enraged by Pinker’s article, which, if it is a defense of the humanities, might as well be a kind of ‘scientism humanitarian intervention.’ Pinker preaches a colonization of the humanities by science as well as the total destruction of what had gone before.

I wasn’t alone in this opinion. A number of brilliant articles have appeared in its wake, including Steven Poole’s, and, in my opinion, the two stand-outs (from opposite ends of the spectrum): Leon Wieseltier’s long, magisterial philosophical take-down (also in The New Republic) and this utter gem of a piece from the Fuck Theory Tumblr which is so entertaining you should crack open a beer and put on Yeezus before reading.

So I don’t really want to rehearse these arguments again, since they’ve been put so eloquently in the aforementioned pieces. But I do want to add one thing to the debate, and that is to problematise the kind of fawning child-like wonderment at ‘science’ that is creeping into the way we talk about science, especially on social media. Call it ‘hipster scientism.’ Or, perhaps, the Buzzfeed Scientific Method.

What I noticed is that often those people who shared Steven Pinker’s article were often those who share bits from the Facebook or Tumblr account ‘I F*cking Love Science.’ You will have seen these – an image, of an animal or galaxy, with an astonishing ‘fact’ attached. Wow! Nature is great! Otters hold hands when they sleep! Amazing! There is a fungus that takes over the brain of an ant! (Or something like that, I don’t really remember this one). Galaxies! Isn’t everything wondrous!

Well, of course it is. But let’s not fool ourselves that we’re doing science by reading some facts we found on the internet. You don’t love science. You enjoy trivia. 

I’m perhaps being a bit unkind. But I think this distribution of science as trivia through the internet speaks to some larger issues about ‘scientism’ and the humanities – and, as ever, it comes back to that bastard combination of ideology and materialism. Consider how easy it would be to troll the I F*cking Love Science account. Here are two statements. One is scientifically verified and the one is a lie:

a) Lobsters are basically immortal

b) There is a type of hornet that sprays flesh-melting poison

Actually, both were true. I read both of them on the internet. But that’s the thing. If I had made one of them up, I do not actually have the scientific skills to verify whether the statement is true or not. Furthermore, I don’t have the resources to find out that otters hold hands when they sleep. I accept that it is true because someone in a position of authority has told me so. Science is a rational method – a means of procuring and producing knowledge. But the acceptance of scientific fact as fact is a performative speech act, authorized by the position of the person who has uttered the statement. As a linguist, you’d think Pinker would know this.

Not to get too Foucauldian here, but science is both: a) the thing that has bettered humanity more than anything (I LOVE antibiotics and medicine, just saying) and b) an almost totalizing apparatus of power and knowledge that responds to the movements of capital and is downright terrifying at times. It can be both these things. Science is susceptible to instrumentalisation and misuse because naming something as ‘fact’ is always performative in some way. Not everyone has the time to verify something through their own experiment, and that’s ok.

Pinker doesn’t point out that science takes resources and money, is often very costly, and requires enormous amounts of specialist training and knowledge. That’s fine when we are trying to invent treatments for cancer, but far less fine when we (as Pinker seems to advocate) seek to apply it to the humanities. If the humanities are revived through an injection of fresh blood from the sciences, what this means is a total abandonment of the democratic project of the humanities.

As Terry Eagleton points out, literary theory is a democratic project. Prior to the turn to theory in the academy, the understanding of literature was seen as a matter of taste and discretion – only those with a certain cultivated aesthetic sense could participate, which meant, invariably that it was principally the domain of those of a higher socioeconomic class. Theory was meant to liberate literature and make the study of it conceivably open to anyone. While its well rehearsed obscurantism may seem to contradict this project, the fundamental drive of the study of the humanities through theory and philosophy was the opening up of literature (art, theatre, dance, music) to everyone. 

Now consider Pinker’s humanoscientific utopia; here, science is the key to all knowledge, even about something like literature. Here is one of Pinker’s recommendations: ‘Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters.’ Leaving aside the hideous reductiveness of this kind of study, which simply seems to justify all those Amazon reviews that say ‘This book was sooo boring I couldnt relate to any of the characters’ – there is the other problem that the average person simply doesn’t have access to the equipment, labs, resources or specialist knowledge in order to conduct this sort of cognitive psychology test. We simply accept the conclusions of the researchers and move on. And then what does that tell us? That the brain has certain neural pathways that light-up (or whatever) when someone you read about does something that you have experienced in your life? Fine, but that’s not what Infinite Jest or [insert name of book] means. 

What people will hopefully have access to if we defend things like libraries is access to lots of books. It also takes a commitment to widening participation, and yeah, rarely do people have ready access to 9K in tuition fees, but that’s another story.

In 2005, I played the role of Thuy, a Viet Cong commissar and the betrothed cousin of the female lead, Kim, in the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s mega-musical Miss Saigon, in Vancouver, Canada. The musical is an adaptation by two French men of the opera Madama Butterfly, itself a piece of flagrant orientalism by Puccini, an Italian composer. Transposing the action of Madama Butterfly from 1904 Nagasaki to the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon has been both lauded for its hyperreal spectacle (including the famous ‘helicopter scene’) and denounced for its paternalistic and colonial attitude towards Southeast Asia (the bar girls, the scene in Bangkok, and yes, the same old suicide). At the time, I was aware of the arguments against the piece (my cousin Elaine had written a rather scathing essay on it for her Women’s Studies class at SFU) but, to be honest, I didn’t let it bother me. It was a job. And furthermore, it was a job for me.

 Here’s the thing: Vancouver, as it is well known, has a large East Asian and South Asian population, including a high percentage of first, second, third and fourth generation Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, South Asian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants. Out of this Asian Canadian community, some of us are actors. When the Arts Club – being Vancouver’s largest non-touring, ‘homegrown’, theatre company – announced Miss Saigon as its summer show, our community of Asian Canadian actors couldn’t believe our luck. Finally, we thought. Here is a show for us. Here is a show about Asia. Here is visibility. It’s fairly easy to feel invisible as an actor of East Asian origin – after all, the roles we tended to audition for were generally predicated on their rather marginal visibility: the computer guy, the drug dealer (who hides away in the shadows), the waiter. Or rather, maybe we felt silent. After all, these roles were often S.O.C. (Silent-on-Camera), and anyway, isn’t that the stereotype? Aren’t we quiet? Shy? Inscrutable? Emotionless?

But here was a show where Asian Canadian bodies were visible, in often exploitative states of undress, in feats of dance and acrobatics, but also noisy, loud. We were no longer silent: we sang full-throated and raw. This was a piece in which a small Vietnamese peasant girl belts the lines: ‘A song / played on a solo saxophone / a crazy sound / a lonely sound / a cry, that tells us love / goes on and on.’ No cod-Vietnamese accent. No broken English. Just melodramatic sentimentality combined with a rather lovely melody and a virtuosic performance.

I played Thuy for three months, and loved it. Despite only appearing in the first act, this was a great character, with a spectacular and indulgently melismatic death scene. After the show closed, however, I felt a nagging suspicion: what if this is as good as it gets? After Thuy, who? The guy in Flower Drum Song? Or wait until the gods of colour-blind casting deign to ‘reflect Canada’s multicultural heritage’ and throw us a bone? Two months after the show closed I moved to London to begin a Master’s Degree at Central School of Speech & Drama, the first step on the path to my current role as Lecturer in Theatre Studies at Brunel University.

I offer this story as a way of understanding, from the inside, the complex and often conflicted feelings felt by actors of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin when confronted with works that embody colonial, orientalist, and downright racist attitudes. I know Miss Saigon is pretty offensive. History is going to prove that bar scene as one of the most egregious combinations of racism and misogyny in musical theatre. But deep down, I still love it, as do, I will bet you, many people of East and Southeast Asian origin (though not my cousin Elaine). It launched the international career of the Filipino actress and singer Lea Salonga – just as in the 1910s, the Japanese singer Miura Tamaki rose to fame playing Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. The relation between racist and colonialist stage works and the BAME actors who take part in these works is complicated, and I believe has to do with the dual nature of the theatre as a space of visibility and invisibility, of representation and the real, and of make-believe and truth.

What happens, then, when we encounter a theatre work that seems so calculated as to deny visibility to those persons it supposedly represents? The work in question is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao, which opens at The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon on 30 October 2012. As has been already reported by bloggers including British-Chinese poet/writer Anna Chen and British-Chinese actress and associate director of True Heart Theatre Lucy Sheen, The Orphan of Zhao is an adaptation of a 13th Century Yuan Dynasty ‘zaju’ (mixed-drama) by Ji Junxiang, adapted by writer James Fenton. It is, apparently, the first work of this Chinese dramatic form to be translated into English.

(Here is a show for us. Here is a show about China. Here is visibility.)

As if learning nothing from the scandal that surrounded the La Jolla Playhouse and their production of The Nightingale, an original musical set in ‘mythic China’ (whatever that is), the RSC’s Artistic Director (and director of The Orphan of Zhao) Gregory Doran has chosen to cast, out of 17 roles, only 3 actors of East Asian origin. Worse still, these three actors play two halves of a dog, and a maid. There are other BAME actors in the play, but all major roles are played by white actors. Despite this, the RSC’s publicity for the production depicts a young boy of East Asian origin, and the company is courting Chinese audiences, with a information on the play given in Chinese on the website (after all, Chinese people only like to see Chinese things, and eat Chinese food, and, I don’t know, go around holding chrysanthemums). Needless to say, this racist casting decision hasn’t been without controversy, though this controversy has been somewhat invisible – Chen points out that Anglo-Chinese actor Daniel York*, who is Equity’s BAME representative, has been trying for months to elicit a response from the RSC without luck. On 19 October 2012, in response to increasing pressure online, the RSC issued a lukewarm non-response, which can be found here.

I don’t want to summarise previous arguments or the debate as a whole, but rather to offer a personal and analytical response on why the RSC’s casting decision bothers me so much.

What The Orphan of Zhao’s white-washing feels like is Miss Saigon in reverse. Miss Saigon is an orientalist work because it was written by two white French man, and directed by a white English man, who depicted a fundamentally orientalist narrative in which a Vietnamese girl falls in love with an American (white) soldier, is left, has a child, and kills herself in grief upon discovery that her GI has a new wife. On Youtube you can find footage of a very young Lea Salonga auditioning for the part of Kim. The image of a young Filipina in Catholic white, hair tied back and decorated with sampa gita (the Philippines’ national flower, a small white blossom), singing in a fantastically clear and resonant mezzo-soprano, looked on by a table of middle-aged white men, including National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, is very familiar. It is an image of exoticism. Boublil and Schönberg attempt to represent a reality of the East from a Western position of enunciation. The device through which they do this is spectacle. Asian bodies, as I have said before, are made (literally) visible, they are readable and audible. While the content of the representation itself may be problematic, Miss Saigon as a theatrical form makes Asian bodies present.*

The Orphan of Zhao, on the other hand, is a classic Chinese text. Its position of enunciation, the place from where it speaks, is China. In adapting the text, The RSC, a British company are engaging in an act of appropriation. To their credit, I don’t think the RSC are unaware of this, in fact, Gregory Doran has written blogs on going to China, and engaging in research and so on. What their failure to consider the visibility of Asian performers in this production is a failure to understand the very nature of theatre, and the real effects beyond representation that theatre’s choices in terms of what is seen and what can be seen (its mise-en-scène) can have.

The ontology of theatre is dual – it is at once a form that trades in representation, illusions, shades, but at the same time it accomplishes these things through the real, through an organisation of bodies, materials, and images. This is what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ Art, and by extension, theatre, for Rancière, may create representations, it may be false, it may be make-believe, but its effects are no less real, because it helps to establish common modes of perception. To read theatre as a distribution of the sensible means that it establishes what is and isn’t able to be visible or represented, in the ‘common sense’ (and here I use sense in its dual meaning, of both a perception through the senses, and the meaning or understanding that arises therefrom). These common modes of perception are important because they structure what Rancière calls the ‘police order’, which means the set of unspoken but understood rules that determine certain roles in society. Such elisions between the representational mode of art and the social field are pretty evident when we consider even the word representation – the ‘asylum seeker’ is a figure only represented in a certain way, while those seeking asylum in the UK increasingly have less and less recourse to legal representation. When aesthetics structures what can be seen and heard in the field of art, it is also structures in social life, how we perceive who may appear, speak, participate in democracy.

Back to The Orphan of Zhao, Doran’s casting choice represents an artistic gesture that effectively reproduces, rather than challenges, the existing distribution of the sensible, in which East Asians are typically seen as the ‘model minority’: high-achieving, but silent, and especially, compliant. Doran is perfectly within his rights to cast as he wishes, but he should be aware of the way his piece reproduces the status quo. Take the example of the character of the ‘Demon Mastiff.’ Played by Siu Hun Li, Chris Lew Kum Hoi (both of apparently Chinese origin) and Joan Iyiola (a black actor), the Demon Mastiff is described by the RSC in their ‘clarification’ in response to the controversy, as a ‘spectacular piece of puppetry.’ On the level of representation, on the make-believe level of theatre, perhaps. Perhaps I will be thrilled to see these three actors operate a demon dog puppet so as to create the illusion of a real animal. But on the level of the sensible, I will also be aware that I am watching three actors of colour three levels removed from visibility and speech – they are speaking (if they speak) through an avatar, they are three represented as one, they are visible through an avatar that is meant to draw our attention away from the material evidence of their Otherness, their bodies. I will be aware that these actors of colour are not in a position in which they are made visible, present, and importantly, heard. This is not the case for Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays The Princess — she, on the other hand is able to be visible, and to speak, without the mediation of a puppet. This position of voiceless-ness and removal from visibility reproduces the police order by which those most seen and heard, are white, with minority ethnic persons relegated to existing roles.

The RSC’s response to the controversy was pretty lukewarm and insufficient, but very telling*. They tell us that: ‘we are always aiming to reflect the diverse population of the UK’, and there we have it, it is indeed a reflection – a reproduction. ‘The multi-cultural make-up of our winter season company reflects British society.’ Indeed it does, very well, right down to the entrenched prejudice that is felt by BAME persons all the time. The response attempts to portray the RSC as progressive and global, noting that The Orphan of Zhao ‘originally came from China, and has since been revived, adapted and explored by many writers across the world.’ If true, this doesn’t explain why then the RSC would choose to play up the Chinese angle, by using its online and print marketing to reach out to a Chinese audience, and by fetishizing a boy with East Asian appearance on its publicity image – and then committing the old hypocrisy of folding all this back into old hegemonic casting practices.

In summary, I respect Doran’s right to artistic expression. But I believe he has made the wrong choice, and a very damaging one. Certainly he has done nothing to alter our ‘common modes of perception’, unless, perhaps, we count the number of Asian writers and artists making noise against the RSC, and the growing lines of affinity to other communities that have also experienced such invisibility. The only proper response at this point by the RSC would be to acknowledge that hurt has been caused – this uproar isn’t a moan, a complaint, it’s a response to genuine hurt. To be told that the ‘best person for the part’ of ‘Chinese Princess’ is a white woman, is deeply wounding. But it happens all the time. (Jason Chu’s poem Colourblind has a great list of examples).

I don’t really think about race very often. I don’t believe I experience racism very often on a daily basis. When I perform, in my dance work with a white male performer, I don’t believe we are perceived through the lens of race, and audience feedback bears this out. But every so often I will be reminded that while I may not be confronted with racism on a personal or individual level, there is still systemic, entrenched racism in Western society. The white-washing of ‘our’ works of art, be they The Orphan of Zhao or the proposed American remake of Akira, isn’t malicious on some individual level, it’s systemic. But systemic racism is still felt as racism. White-washing reproduces the common mode of perception that the default position of speech and visibility is a white man or woman. It takes away the little thrill of ‘here is a story for me.’

When I was an actor in Vancouver moaning about auditioning for another take-away driver or something where I had to speak broken English, the advice everyone gave was ‘well, stop complaining and start making your own work.’ Good advice. I guess that’s what I ended up doing. I think most actors of colour should follow it. The way to truly engage and challenge the ‘distribution of the sensible’ is not to pine away for the fabled contract at the RSC or 6 months in Miss Saigon. It is to stop saying ‘here is a story for me’ and to start saying ‘here is my story.’

– 19 October 2012

Dr Broderick Chow, Lecturer in Theatre Studies, Brunel University London, and co-founder of dance and physical theatre duo the Dangerologists.

* Daniel York has worked with the RSC before. But, amazingly, he is the only actor of Chinese origin to be cast by the RSC in 20 years. The RSC often blazes a trail for colour-blind casting, having produced an all-black Julius Caesar and an Indian production of Much Ado About Nothing, but they really seem to dislike Chinese people.

* The singing voice in Miss Saigon is an interesting issue, as all characters, no matter what race or ethnicity, sing in an Anglo-American accent, without resorting to broken English. The voice is thus a leveller that perhaps marks out Miss Saigon as an early piece of the theatre of globalisation.

* Although their defense of ‘The Maid’, played by Susan Momoko Hingley, is pretty funny: ‘”The Maid” is one of the key roles in the play. She stands up to tyranny and is executed.’ Because of course, a good death scene, like Thuy’s, makes all the difference. And doesn’t their description sound like Tuptim in The King and I?

Expressions of interest are invited from scholars across the humanities interested in philosophy, theatre and performance to contribute to an edited volume on:

Žižek and Performance

Slavoj Žižek is a cultural phImageenomenon. Since the publication of his first English book, The Sublime Object of Ideology in 1989, his philosophical work has had a distinctive influence on numerous fields, ranging between film studies, political science, media and theology. His numerous publications have influenced the way we think about politics, psychoanalysis and a range of cultural issues in an increasingly volatile political and economic climate. Žižek never fails to provoke or to initiate heated discussion. With his eclectic critique of neoliberalism, capitalist ideology and mass hysteria, he has established himself as one of the most influential thinkers of our age. 

His impact on theatre and performance studies, is harder to assess. Unlike contemporaries such as Judith Butler or Jacques Rancière, whose work has attained near-canonical status in the study of theatre and performance, references to Žižek’s work in theatre studies are often deployed as a means of explaining his ‘more serious’ influences, namely, Jacques Lacan, G.W.F. Hegel, and Karl Marx. Assessments of his work’s practical use and its relevance to the disciplines and practices of theatre and performance are therefore rather hard to find.  

We suggest that Žižek is an important philosopher for a range of fields in theatre and performance. For one – and despite admitting that he might ‘not know a lot about theatre’* – Žižek is certainly quite the performer. The Slovenian philosopher tugs his shirt, free-associates, runs off on tangents, and tells jokes with a timing that would put Woody Allen to shame. He has been described as a ‘Marx Brother’, a ‘deadly jester’ (in a now-famous savaging by conservative journalist Adam Kirsch), and the ‘Elvis of Cultural Theory.’ But there is also something theatrical about his writing. In its witty density and its playful insistence on provocation, it is less a systematic analysis of axioms than it is a ‘performance of thought’. Leigh Clare La Berge (2007) calls it ‘The Writing Cure’, relating Žižek’s work to the role of the analysand in the deeply performative scenario of the psychoanalytic clinic. Sharpe and Boucher (2010) call it an ‘intellectual roller-coaster’. And, as numerous commentators have pointed out, Žižek seems to lack a coherent system. His books and talks often raise contradictory positions or inconsistencies. We might conclude, with Žižek, that the performance of theory, if not the whole point, is at least a great part of his work. It is in such performance — which, to paraphrase Paolo Virno (2004), is its own purpose, and requires the presence of others — that we can begin not to find answers, but to question the very validity of the questions we pose. Today, as scholars of theatre and performance wonder about the discipline in relation to serious questions of globalisation, violence, revolution and political economy, Zizek’s work on the critique of ideology, subjectivity, politics and ontology proves to be more important than ever. 

This volume will be the first comprehensive account of Žižek’s influence on, and his relevance for, performance. It asks what Žižek’s philosophy might offer to the study of theatre and performance, and vice versa. The volume is divided into two sections: the first, entitled ‘Žižek and Performance Theory’, and the second, ‘Žižek and Performance Practice.’ As we understand it for the purposes of this volume, ‘performance’ can encompass a spectrum of forms including (but not limited to) dramatic literature, site-specific performance, dance, physical and devised theatre, queer performance, feminist performance, applied theatre, improvisation and comedy. Part One is comprised of essays which both introduce key strands of Žižek’s thought as well as interrogate these through key concepts in performance theory, such as performativity, theatricality, spectatorship, liveness and so on. Part Two focuses on the applicability of Žižek’s ideas to concrete performance practices and to actual performance work. The volume concludes with an essay examining Žižek himself as a performer and the use of humour as a political/critical strategy. 

Proposals are invited on aspects of Žižek’s work and performance theories and practices for Part Two of the volume especially. 

In terms of final drafts, we will be looking at contributions between 5,000-8,000 words. The overall volume will be approximately 85,000 words with a deadline of February 2013. 

Abstracts of c. 250 words along with a brief biography should be sent to both editors:

Broderick Chow at and Alex Mangold at 


*‘The Spectator’s Malevolent Neutrality’, Theaterformen Festival, Brunswick, Germany, 8 June 2004

Images from Work Songs, 24 February 2012, at Birkbeck, University of London.

Upcoming dates: 8 March 2012, Platform Zero, Zion Arts Centre, Hulme, Manchester

13-14 April 2012, London Studio Centre, wrestling and dance demonstration at How Performance Thinks

4 May 2012, 9 PM, Turn Dance Festival, Contact, Manchester

Work Songs teaser trailer on Vimeo


Upcoming Performance:

8 March 2012

The Dangerologists will be performing an excerpt from Work Songs as part of Platform Zero, at the Zion Arts Centre, Hulme, Manchester. There will be a workshop on dance writing starting at 6:30, with the performance beginning at 7:15. FREE ENTRY.

More information at:


Work Songs

by Broderick Chow & Tom Wells {the dangerologists}

A love song to the mindless drudgery and hopeless alienation of office work. A dynamic mix of dance theatre and professional wrestling.

In a thoroughly average corporate office, Tom and Brody are risk analysts with a Sisyphean job; a inbox that never gets smaller. They work and fight and look forward to lunch. Then one day the good chair is taken away and all hell breaks loose.

Work Songs is a dance-theatre and physical comedy performance exploring concepts of labour, training, attention, effort and exhaustion. the dangerologists devise physical theatre around a process of intensive physical training and the working model of ‘rowdy play.’ Work Songs explores forced relationships formed on competition and close proximity. As the two guys compete for promotions and esteem, their conflict is physicalized in the most literal way as they wrestle for the company’s love. By investigating the concept of physical work through the office environment, the dangerologists explore concepts of masculinity, daily drudgery, and the possibility of fulfilling work in the new economy.

Broderick Chow is a Canadian performance maker now living in the UK. He spent 5 years as a stand-up comedian on the UK circuit, and his previous solo work has been a mix of monologue, movement and multimedia. He is a lecturer in the School of Arts at Brunel University, and a doctoral graduate of Central School of Speech & Drama.

Tom Wells is a physical performer whose work has encompassed a variety of forms both stage and screen and site specific. Tom is artistic director of B-Road Theatre Company, whose aim is to bring theatre to the rural heart of Lancashire.