Theatre review: The King and I

Tradition wins in this culture clashing classic


Reviewing The King and I in 2018 is an interesting experience. It’s difficult to know how much of the stereotyping, racism and xenophobia is from the script and how much from the production.

First performed on Broadway in 1951, this touring Broadway production is its first revival since 1996. Set in the 1860s, there are a few themes that stand out to a modern audience positive and not so positive.

The King and I had rave reviews on Broadway and won Kelli O’Hara a Tony award for her portrayal of Anna,. The Japanese film and stage star Ken Watanabe was nominated for a Tony as the king.

But for all the hype, even after the interview we ran in this paper with the director Bartlett Sher professing a revolutionary change to the production, the staging felt very traditional. It stuck close to the original. That’s not necessarily a bad thing it definitely pleased the audience and I can see how any attempts to adapt the staging whilst using the original script could have presented more problems than it solved.

The musical is based on a heart-warming true story. British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, comes to Siam to educate the many wives and children of the king. Over time the king and Anna build a relationship, an understanding. He’s under pressure as the French and British carve up the Far East between them, she teaches him the civilising ways of the West that will help him keep his independence. The kingdom ultimately becomes a more democratic and “scientific” place. It’s a little bit Sound of Music, a little bit Beauty and the Beast, a little bit George W Bush’s foreign policy (the political touch here is light, but it’s there).

The song Western People Funny which starts the second act highlights the other side of the coin. For all Anna’s civilising colonial views, and the description of the king by the English government as a “barbarian”. In Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics: “They think they civilise us / Whenever they advise us/ To learn to make the same mistake/ That they are making too!”

Despite this, the “funny foreigners” were definitely the Siamese, who spoke in pidgin English, which felt slightly jarring I wondered how the actors felt. The majority of the cast are Asian, in contrast to the original cast which had only two Asian actors. Russian actor Yul Brynner rose to fame thanks to his portrayal of the king, winning two Tony Awards for the Broadway play and an Academy Award for the 1956 film version. Although he came from Vladivostock, and claimed Mongolian ancestry, he’d be an unlikely casting today.

Watanabe was difficult to understand in places, as he had anticipated when cast. But despite that his king is fabulous.

The King and I is a play about revolution and change. Themes cover education, abolitionism, polygamy, authoritarianism and feminism.

This makes it feel surprisingly modern, especially the feminism. Anna tells the king: “I think women are just as important as men”, Lady Tiang, the king’s chief wife (played superbly by Naoko Mori), is the epitome of the strong woman holding up her man, with little subservience about her, and Princess Tuptim, a “gift” from Burma stands up for slaves of all kinds.

The king is ambitious for his nation, and determined to retain independence, but seems to truly love his children and at least some of his many wives. Watanabe plays him as a man whose people think of him as near-divine, but who has humility and humanity. Both Watanabe and O’Hara succeed in making two very famous characters multi-faceted. The drama is in the chemistry between the King and Anna, the growing friendship, the mutual respect and the conflict between East and West, tradition and progress that they fight over in every scene. There is a glimmer of romance between them, but, refreshingly, it never overwhelms the narrative.

The musical aspect is a tour de force on the part of O’Hara. She sings probably 90 per cent of the songs, most of which are solos there are surprisingly few ensemble pieces. She has all the big hits, including Shall We Dance had the audience clapping along and Getting to Know You sparked murmurs of excitement through the theatre as the opening notes stared to play.

The second half felt slower than the first; fewer songs and less action. It is dominated by a beautiful Thai ballet version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, part of the entertainment for a British diplomat visiting Siam. Then follows an upheaval in the palace no spoilers, but it’s signalled from early on which brings the tensions between old and new to a climax. All seems lost as the king breaks down and Anna knows she must leave Siam.

At the end, despite the changes both the king and Anna create to make Siam a stronger kingdom and a better place, despite the friendship between the white woman and the “barbarian” king, the essential conflict of values is unresolved.

Is the takeaway still that East and West can’t coexist? Or will we be stuck forever at the Getting to Know You stage?


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