The Orphan of Zhao

Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Hamlet and tracing its origins to the 4th century BC, The Orphan of Zhao was the first Chinese play to be translated in the West.

This adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao was written by James Fenton and directed by Gregory Doran. It played in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from November 2012 to March 2013.

Play video

The story of The Orphan of Zhao

The courtier Tu'an Gu kills Zhao Dun, who stands in his way, and arranges for his whole clan to be put to death.

But Zhao Dun's infant son survives under a different identity and is adopted by Tu'an Gu as his son. But the Orphan of Zhao will inevitably find out the truth about his identity and avenge his father's death.


Matthew Aubrey - Ti Miming
Jeremy Avis - Ballad Singer
Adam Burton - The Assassin
Joe Dixon - Tu'an Gu
Jake Fairbrother - Cheng Bo
Lloyd Hutchinson - Han Jue
Youssef Kerkour - Captain of the Guard
Chris Lew Kum Hoi - Ghost of Dr Cheng's Son/Demon Mastiff
Siu Hun Li - Demon Mastiff/Guard
Patrick Romer - Gongsun
James Tucker - Zhao Dun
Graham Turner - Dr Cheng
Stephen Ventura - Emperor Ling
Philip Whitchurch - Wei Jang
Lucy Briggs-Owen - The Princess
Nia Gwynne - Dr Cheng's Wife
Susan Momoko Hingley - Princess' Maid
Joan Iyiola - Demon Mastiff


Adapter - James Fenton
Director - Gregory Doran 
Designer - Niki Turner 
Lighting - Tim Mitchell 
Music - Paul Englishby 
Sound - Martin Slavin 
Movement - Will Tuckett

Interview with the writer

Writer James Fenton talks about adapting a classic Chinese story for the British stage.

How did your new adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao come about?

Greg Doran persuaded me to get involved. He sent me several versions, as well as plot summaries of other versions that we couldn't get translations of.

But when we started looking at the material, you could see that as it stood, it was unstageable, so we decided to make a completely new version.

This happens routinely in China. People reinterpret the story or rearrange the material to suit their own preoccupation. There isn't a single text in the way that there is in say, Hamlet. That was quite a liberating thing to understand.

What did you need to take into account when adapting one of China's most well-known dramas for a UK audience?

There are certain formal devices, for example, when principal characters come on stage they introduce themselves in a rather upfront way and we kept a lot of that. In certain points what you are hearing is the original dialogue. So we didn't shy away from the original nature at all.

Then there are certain things in the original that we could see would be very difficult for a western audience. I began to see that the right thing to do was not to tone down the original, but to make that problem a feature of the play. For instance, the life of one child is sacrificed to save the life of another, and it is very hard to convince a western audience of that argument. So you have to leave the ambiguity and difficulty there in the play.

Then there's a linguistic consideration. You are trying to devise a poetic style ...You don't want to make it too obviously orientalising but you want to preserve something of the original.

Tell us about the four new poems you have written for the play.

The earliest versions of the play have word text for arias where the music has been lost. I immediately wanted to establish the idiom of the play so I wrote one song and then I found, rather to my surprise, that I wrote four. It was like making a suspension bridge – the songs are like the uprights and the play is slung between them. Once I'd written the poems then I was able to write a scene.

How did you write convincingly about situations and issues from such an ancient time?

A lot of the situations in the play are modern situations – things I've come across at one removed: people doing everything to protect their child, people living through massacres, disasters etc. At every point through the drama, I've asked myself basic human questions – how would a woman behave in this situation, how could a man tolerate this life? What you get is tempered by my own experience of life.

The Orphan of Zhao is often referred to as the Chinese Hamlet. What links it to Shakespeare?

In terms of it being referred to as the Chinese Hamlet, that's partly because it's China's most famous play and partly because it's a revenge play. And there's a ghost that comes in to remind one of the protagonists that there's this issue unresolved, so that's a parallel.

I think it's more the Chinese Lear because the emotional effect is like a steam roller. At any point, there might be something comic and the play moves between comedy and tragedy very easily. In the original versions there were comic scenes that were also rather violent and clown parts just as in Shakespeare. In one of the most dreadful scenes in the play there is a regular laugh that I had always anticipated since we did the very first read-throughs. It's characteristic of the drama in that one moment you will laugh and then the next moment, you're having to take that laugh back. There are a lot of tears and Kleenex involved as well.

The Song of the Groom

Performed by the Ballad Singer

It is seen that the loveliest girls have begun 
To lower their eyes 
And older men leave poems for you to find 
Hinting in delicate images 
At what is on their mind. 
All this seems to come to you as a surprise.

Yesterday you were a child. 
Today you are neither child nor man 
But held as a petal held pivoting 
On a gossamer thread, 
Wanting no new love yet, no, nor wishing to give 
More love than a child well can.

They watch you. They envy the young groom 
As he hands you the reins 
And helps you with exquisite modesty and tact, 
Loving the child in you still, fearing the man, 
Uncertain each day just how you may react. 
You thank the groom for his pains.

He hands you the sealskin quiver, 
The archer's ring and the glove. 
He stretches the gut string taut and he proffers the bow 
And he lowers his eyes and he trembles, 
Fearing his fear will show. 
[For] he dreads to betray his love.

Go forth, go ride to your sport. 
Find your prey and show your skill. 
Shoot from the saddle. Let your aim be true. 
Only one man knows who you are, 
How many heroes have died for you 
And whose blood it is your fate to spill. 
Be on your way. 
Be a child for one more day. 
One whom you love your blood dooms you to kill.

One whom you love your blood dooms you to kill.

You may also like