Bartlett Sher: Brexit will hang over the plot of The King and I
How do you approach work that dances so dangerously with ideas of political correctness?
The King and I runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre at the end of the month.
“Anything that may adversely affect Thai-US relations should not be permitted to take place”, the prime minister of Thailand, Phibun Songhrkam, declared, when officially banning any screening or stage production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I in Thailand in 1956. Speaking on behalf of the reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, he explained that “Asian and Western customs are different” and that the Thais “would be deeply offended by [the musical’s] portrayal of the monarchy.”
The King and I – which is based on a novel inspired by the memoirs of Anna Leonowens – centres on the experiences of a young English widow, who was employed by the Court of Siam between 1862 and 1867 to provide the children of King Mongkut with a modern, Western education. The plot unfolds over the five years that Leonowen’s spent in his service, as Siam struggled to negotiate a path between its traditional culture and the ever-encroaching forces of colonial modernity.
Rodger and Hammerstein’s collaboration first came to the attention of the Thai government when the film version, directed by Walter Lang, was released in 1956 to international acclaim. Watching it in 2019, the reasons for offence are clear. Apart from various historical inaccuracies, the plot itself is an Orientalist fantasy, centring on a young woman who is determined to disabuse a monarch of his barbaric ways.
The casting of the white Russian actor Yul Brynner in the central role, meanwhile – which followed a yellow-faced casting template that dominated stage versions for the first 30 years of the musical’s production history – would be totally unacceptable today. Indeed, the shadow of cultural appropriation has been difficult to remove. Despite being re-made with a little more cultural sensitivity in 1999, The King and I remains banned across stage and screen in Thailand today. Any contemporary production must therefore wrestle with its complex history. How do you approach a piece of canonical work that dances so dangerously with contemporary ideas of political correctness?
For the Tony award winning director Bartlett Sher, whose 2016 production of The King and I comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this month after Broadway success and West End plaudits, this is a challenge that needs to be met by the audience as much as the creatives involved in bringing it to life. “When you are dealing with a historical text or a historical musical”, he explains while on a break from rehearsals at London’s National Youth Theatre, “you need to accept that there were certain rules at the time it was made: certain social conventions and ways of looking at the world. That distance – between our time and theirs – presents a problem which the audience can respond to. In fact by staging them, the issues are present in such a way that it draws our attention to how things have changed, how differently we look at those things now, and the audience are capable of deciding what they want to do with that information.”
The Thai people were surrounded by colonial forces, they needed to shift quickly to negotiate their traditional way of life with the new industrialisation
Sher, who is resident director at New York’s Lincoln Center, has previous form negotiating the contemporary cultural relevance of classic works. The biggest successes of his career to date have been revivals of the work of the neglected African American playwright Clifford Odets, and historical musicals like South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof. Meanwhile, his current project, as director of Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, has also been dogged by controversy about contemporary political correctness: is Atticus Finch really the pioneering justice-seeking hero of twentieth-century literature, we must ask ourselves, as we watch Boo Radley’s trial unfold through the lens of history?
“Any great history play – whether Shakespeare or an historical musical like the King and I is a conversation between our time and the past”, Sher says, as a way of clearing up any misunderstandings about his own creative impulses. The King and I, he continues, offers an opportunity to engage with “the basic impulse of a story that is rooted in the struggle between tradition and modernity, and to ask what that might mean in the present moment. The Thai people were surrounded by colonial forces, and they needed to shift quickly to negotiate their traditional way of life with the new industrialisation. They did that successfully and managed to avoid being colonised. That story is still very relevant in places like the Middle East. But [the musical] also asks questions about leadership in the way that it portrays the King, and that is relevant everywhere.” When Sher’s production first opened in the autumn of 2016, for example, several critics mentioned Donald Trump in their reviews. “It was right when the election was happening,” Sher remembers, “and when the King asks whether he should ‘build a fence around Siam or let everyone in?’, there was an audible response from the audience.”
In the production’s current incarnation, meanwhile, which will tour throughout the UK after its three week run at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Sher suggests the shadow of Brexit will inevitably hang over the historical plot. The action may be set in 19th century Siam but “the questions of leadership and the legacy of colonialism are still relevant. Is the UK a democracy anymore? What does the EU mean to Britain? These are questions that the audience will be asking themselves. The politics of now will certainly shape how they see the operations of [the Siam court].” The fact that a piece of live theatre engages so deeply with the present moment in which it is playing, Sher insists, “is what makes it so exciting [a medium] work in. The world around the theatre is constantly changing and that affects the world of the play on stage, of course, as the audience will be responding differently depending on that context.”
When originally conceiving of his production, Sher was aware of the musical’s chequered history. “The biggest criticisms would be the Orientalism at play: all the weird costumes and lavish gold encrusted palaces. [Rodgers and Hammerstein] were exoticising the East, but they didn’t have the same point of view we have now. That was the fault of the 1950s.” In order to avoid similar fetishisation, Sher and his collaborators first returned to Leonowen’s original “which was very helpful in anchoring us in the world of the play. But we have also learned a lot more since it was originally published – about conditions in Thailand at the time, social conventions, gender conventions, rules of kingship - and that helped us to create a more authentic perspective.”
The musical’s text itself, however, Sher insisted, would stand. Indeed, Sher even restored an often-excised song, Western People Funny, in which the women of Mongkut’s court deride Westerners for being “sentimental about the Oriental”. “Western People Funny,” the wives sing, in mild protest about being re-costumed in Western fashion. “They always try to turn us Inside down and upside out!.... They think they civilise us Ah/ Whenever they advise us/To learn to make the same mistake/That they are making too!” The inclusion of the comic number ensures that the dissonance of the dynamic between Western and Eastern cultures goes both ways. The aim is to showcase cultural misunderstanding rather than superiority: a theme that will resonate with audiences throughout time just as much as the political one.
The King and I runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from May 21st-June 1st.