The Orphan of Zhao

Reading a play is never quite the same as watching it in performance, but I imagine that James Fenton’s The Orphan of Zhao would lend itself extremely well to the stage. Many scenes, such as Cheng Bo’s travels across China, during which he discovers the extent of his adoptive father’s tyranny, and the fearsome demon mastiff trained by Tu’an Gu to held him seize power, could be brought to life in visually creative ways. If you are fortunate enough to see it performed, then I strongly urge you to go along; if not, then the script is certainly worth a read.The story stems from a 13th-century Chinese play, which was itself based upon historically-documented events.


Fenton admits to making a few changes to the original material, but these alterations only heightened the emotional tension within the play. The play is heavily centred around violence (suicides, especially: I’m sure these are much more dramatically effective on stage than they were when written as a curt stage direction along the lines of ‘Character A dashes his head against the tree’) but The Orphan of Zhao is also highly reflective, and like Shakespeare’s most famous revenge play, Titus Andronicus, provides a timeless meditation on the problem of vengeance.

Aiee, father of mine, father of mine,
What are these shouts in the rain, these voices
in the air?
The petal is ripped from the flower, the branch
from the tree.
The torn limbs lie everywhere.


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