Found in Translation: Chinglish at the Park Theatre

Saturday 25th March 2017, matinée

It’s hard to believe it was nearly four years ago that the Park Theatre first introduced us to the talents of David Henry Hwang, when they premiered his challenging and outrageously funny play Yellowface.  Since then we have enjoyed the fascinating Golden Child at the New Diorama, but it’s been a long wait for the UK premier of ‘Chinglish’, which Andrew Keates is now directing at the Park.

Chinglish tells the story of an American businessman trying to break into China, and his journey, by turns painful and hilarious, as he learns who to trust and how to win over the locals. The story of his success is not what you would expect, and has a refreshing message for all of us.

Hwang has an uncanny ability to entertain and inform in equal measures without ever losing his integrity.  He has chosen a subject everyone can relate to and starts with everyone’s favourite activity – laughing at badly translated English signs – although he does turn the tables later on with a true story of a German academic journal getting some Chinese poetry very wrong indeed.  It is as if he has invented a new and highly entertaining form of farce, where much of the play is in Chinese, variously interpreted by incompetent interns, ‘consultants’ with their own agenda, and surtitles that give the ‘neutral’ translation.  He effortlessly combines lighthearted wordplay with a much more sophisticated underlying theme which leads us to question the whole nature of diplomacy and business, and the stories we all tell about ourselves, especially when we are out of our comfort zone, as it becomes clear that our hero will need to reinvent himself several times before he can get anywhere.

He also has a gift for identifying the prevalent clichés of the time, and subverting them. Thus we start out with the pushy American, the English ex pat ‘cultural expert’ with fluent Chinese, the corrupt and backward local mayor, and his hatchet-faced female deputy.  The play is perfectly constructed and paced to allow each of these characters to open up, and with multiple points of view, none of them remain stereotypes.  The American turns out to be a desperate fugitive, a participant in the Enron scandal, hoping he can escape if he puts enough miles between him and his past; the ex pat turns out to be a hopelessly out of touch colonial, mourning the time when a Chinese-speaking Englishman was a rarity and he could be waited on hand and foot.  And the hatchet faced local official turns out to be playing everyone to help her husband, with a little bit of romance on the side.

Director Andrew Keates has assembled a fantastic cast.  Candy Ma shines out in the role of the deputy mayor, with an exciting unpredictability which has us guessing throughout.  She combines this with suberb comic talent and imbues the character with unlikely charisma.  Gyuri Sarossy perfectly captures the thinly veiled desperation of the businessman, and conveys the charming and childlike bewilderment of the only character on stage who barely ever understands what it is going on, but ploughs on with enthusiasm regardless.  Duncan Harte is Peter, the English teacher who has lived in China long enough to think he knows the game.  He brings a languid sense of entitlement and somehow combines self-deprecating modesty with hidden arrogance in a neat passive-aggressive package.  Lobo Chan is the Mayor, a beleaguered man who knows his corruption will soon catch up with him.  He begrudgingly tries to enjoy his power while he has it but his failure to keep up with the times is betrayed by his old-fashioned Nokia phone.  His look of bemusement when his new phone starts ‘ringing’ tells a story in itself.

The main characters have excellent support from Siu-See Hung and Windson Liong as the hopeless assistants and Minhee Yeo, whose unashamed hero-worship when she finds out that her new prospective business partner rubbed shoulders with the guys from Enron, is a joy to watch.

David Henry Hwang has pulled off a great trick here, insulting everybody on an equal opportunities basis with great charm and humour, and giving us all something to think about – never has outrageous opportunism and corruption been this much fun.

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