A touring theatre company has pulled a play from the Sheffield Crucible because of the venue’s decision to also stage Miss Saigon, a musical often criticised for its portrayal of the Vietnam war and Vietnamese people.

In a statement, New Earth Theatre, a company of British east and south-east Asian artists, and co-producers Storyhouse, said: “Miss Saigon remains a very contentious musical since its release over 30 years ago … The damaging tropes, misogyny and racism inherent in the show completely contradict [our] values and beliefs.”

The company’s teams had concerns that “working alongside a musical that perpetuates deeply held notions of Asian inferiority would impact their wellbeing. Our commitment to our cast, creatives and technical staff needs to come first”. The two shows were scheduled for next summer.

Sheffield Theatres, which runs the Crucible, said it respected the decision. “There is no denying that past versions of this story have provoked strong reactions and feelings. We have approached this new production sensitive to this and believe this is a chance for us to engage in a fresh way with a majority east and south-east Asian company reframing the story,” it said in a statement.

The Crucible’s creative team had been in “close conversation with members of the BESEA community and are keen to continue discussing their plans with concerned artists to keep a positive and inclusive dialogue open”.

Miss Saigon opened in London’s West End in 1989, and later transferred to Broadway. It was produced by Cameron Mackintosh, who owns the rights.

Based on Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, it tells the story of a teenage Vietnamese sex worker who falls in love with an American GI and becomes pregnant, but is abandoned by him when the city falls.

Sheffield Theatres’ publicity for next year’s production describes it as an “epic love story” that is passionate, poignant and unforgettable.

It has won more than 40 awards, including two Oliviers and three Tonys, and has been performed in at least 28 countries and in 15 languages.

But it has also come under fire. When it opened in London in 1989, Jonathan Pryce, who played the leading part of a pimp called the Engineer, wore prosthetics to alter the shape of his eyes, and makeup to give him an Asian appearance. Within a few years, producers cast only actors of Asian heritage for the part.

The criticism went beyond casting. In 2017, Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pullitzer prize-winning Vietnamese-American writer, said the show “fits perfectly into the way that Americans, and Europeans, have imagined the Vietnam war as a racial and sexual fantasy that negates the war’s political significance and Vietnamese subjectivity and agency”.

Kumiko Mendl, artistic director of New Earth, said the musical “normalises harmful narratives in which south-east Asian women are fetishised and hypersexualised. The misogyny is baked into the piece.”

Many people of Vietnamese heritage have “a war story within their own family – and that trauma runs through generations,” she said. Miss Saigon was a presentation of the war through a western, imperialist and male gaze, she added.

She said the Crucible had “reasons for thinking they might be able to give it a new reading” but New Earth needed to take an early decision rather than wait to see the Sheffield theatre’s production.

The Crucible’s production of Miss Saigon is the first to cast a female actor, Joanna Ampil, as the Engineer. “That felt like a really interesting way into retelling the story,” said Anthony Lau, associate artistic director.

“Reimagining any classic is about looking at things through fresh eyes, but also taking into consideration things that have happened in the world globally between the first time a piece of work is on stage to now.”

Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, said: “When the show was first presented, it was less than 15 years away from the events that it depicts. With more time, and greater context, and a wider representation of British east and south-east Asian artists involved, we’re able to look at the complexities and challenging elements.”



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