By David Hennessy
Yellow Face, the humorous David Henry Hwang play that raises many questions about race and identity, has transferred to The National Theatre after a successful run at The Park Theatre last year.
The playwright himself is one of the main characters as the story follows the real controversy over the musical Miss Saigon transferring from London to New York with Jonathan Pryce in an Asian role.
Although Hwang receives a lot of publicity about his protests against the casting, the writer later accidentally casts a white man, Marcus G. Dahlman, as an Asian in one of the leading roles of his play, Face Value.
Marcus is played by Ben Starr, the 26-year-old actor with Irish roots, who tells The Irish World: “My character steals this mantra from David Henry Hwang which is: ‘It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside’. My character Marcus is constantly searching for what it is to belong to something and he finds accidentally that the Asian community respond to him as he accidentally becomes the spokesperson for Asian civil rights. He’s not Asian, he’s lying about that, but he feels Asian. He takes that mantra and runs with it.
“It brings up so many issues about race, it’s a fascinating and most importantly humorous look at race, it’s not a heavy play. I get cast as an Asian and prance around pretending to be Asian- It’s ludicrous. It’s a fun little piece and it speaks volumes.”
Working with a mainly Asian cast, Ben’s eyes have been opened to the challenges faced by co-stars like Gemma Chan of Fresh Meat and Dates: “I didn’t know there was this issue about Asians and acting and the way in which they are treated but certainly Gemma Chan and David Yip and Kevin Shan, when they talk about the issues they have with casting, they say these things do exist. In this industry they [can say]: ‘Can you please be more oriental?’ They’re looking for that stereotype. We have these Q and As after the show and it’s amazing how many people have a shared experience of that.
“Why can’t Gemma play Lady Macbeth in Macbeth simply because she’s Chinese?”
While Ben plays Marcus throughout, other cast members play a variety of roles: “All the other actors play all the other roles and it doesn’t matter whether they’re a man or a woman, black or white. We have genuinely stayed true to the mantra of ‘it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside’. At one point, Gemma Chan is playing a massive Russian guy. It’s funny and we give you that suspension of disbelief to make you imagine her as a big Russian guy.
“It’s an exciting and fast paced piece that just looks and feels like nothing you’ve ever seen onstage before because of how quick the characters change and how fast we tell the story and how humorously we tell the story. It’s going to make you think.
Having only just graduated from drama school in the last year and a half [Yellow Face was Ben’s first theatre role after graduating from LAMDA], it is a dream come true for Ben to have a play in the National Theatre: “I’ve been coming to the National Theatre for years and I would always say to my girlfriend ‘I really want to work there’, and I feel like I’ve kind of cheated my way in really.
“I went for a costume fitting today and I got lost, it was like I was competing in a version of The Krypton Factor. Now we’re moving into the National Theatre where we have a much bigger team behind us and we’re being kitted out with Hugo Boss instead of Primark, it’s another level.”
Yellow Face has retained the complete cast of its earlier run: “The fact that all of us made the time, whether we were busy or not, to come back and do it, shows how much we enjoyed doing it. Every night we sit in the audience, and we pop up from the audience, so we watch each other every single performance and the fact that we can continue doing it and still laugh shows how much we genuinely enjoy it. I’m not bored yet. I don’t expect to be bored any time in the next month.”
One review of Yellow Face said Ben deserves to be propelled towards fame just as quickly as his character. When it was not so long ago Ben was subscribing to youth drama groups, paying to act, he is now getting rave reviews in professional theatre: “I think it’s just because I’m an amazing actor,” he says although it is an obvious joke due to his down to earth nature. “No, I couldn’t believe it. It was weird. It’s nice to hear that. It’s nice people believe in me. I was very lucky to get this role. There’s so many fantastic actors out there looking for the role to show what they can do. I’m so lucky Marcus in this is a great showcase for me.”
However, success also adds to the expectations: “That’s the fear. It was so well received first time around, they could be: ‘It was so much better when it was at the park…’ I think because of the source material and the fact the whole team’s together, we’ll do a good job.”
Ben has also been doing a good job playing the lead character in Howard Webster’s Meet Pursuit Delange which also stars Jason Flemyng, Colin Salmon and Larry Lamb: “It’s got a very interesting voice to it, it’s in the ilk of Withnail & I. I was lucky because I was in such safe hands with the other actors, these people who have such a wealth of experience on screen were standing next to me supporting me. It felt good to have their back up if I ever got nervous or worried. Luckily that didn’t happen and I think it was down to knowing that they were there.
“I’ve felt very, very fortunate over the last couple of months and hopefully it will be an exciting time.”
Ben’s looks come from his Irish maternal grandfather: “My mother’s maiden name was Donnelly and the reason I look the way I look with my dark features comes completely from my mother and my granddad’s Irish side. Apparently I have the Donnelly features, I look Irish.
“My gran grew up in India even though she was English and married a hardy Irish man but he died when my mum was 14 so I never got to know him but I do have this rich heritage, we’ve started looking into it. It’s really fascinating. It’s only recently that I’ve started to really connect more with that side.”
Yellow Face plays at The National Theatre until May 24. For more information, go to: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/.