Award-winning stage and screen writer David Henry Hwang’s play Chinglish is in the middle of a run at north London’s Park Theatre, under the direction of Andrew Keates. It is an exciting new addition to the Off West End programme, as it is a truly modern and bilingual affair.
Chinglish explores the clash of languages and cultures that can happen when East meets West. Daniel Cavanaugh is a small-town business man looking to boost his company’s outlook by bidding for a contract in one of China’s smaller cities. He makes signs, and hopes to persuade them that he’s more reliable than the people who last made bilingual signs in the city; there were a number of embarrassing translation failures that were costly to fix, in more than just money. Daniel has hired Peter as a consultant to try and assist him in making the deal – he soon proves to be a more effective translator than the one hired by the Minister and the meeting seems to go very well, but is all as it seems? Alone in a country with a language barrier, Daniel has to decide whether to trust Peter or junior minister Xi Yan.
Not only does the play have an instant comic effect with some examples of poorly translated signs, but it is also an interesting study of what can happen when two vastly different entities meet and try to work together. The blend of mono- and bilingual scenes adds an extra layer of interest, with surtitles projected onto a screen in the background for all of the Chinese speech. As with foreign language films that you may watch with subtitles, it’s still easy to pay attention to what’s going on as well as keep reading the lines.
Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set is ingeniously designed. Initially set out as a plain-looking wooden wall, it actually has several panels that fold out simply and quickly – this means the play can cover different settings without also encountering laborious scene transitions.
Another great thing about this production is that it gives the opportunity for more Asian actors to perform on the London stage – following recent controversies this is more welcome than ever.
The entire cast shows a great knack for comedy, in particular Siu-see Hung as the inept translator, and Lobo Chan as the Minister (one memorable moment coming in combination with Duncan Harte as Peter, as they enjoy singing some of their favourite opera together).
Candy Ma and Gyuri Sarossy also have some fantastic scenes together as Xi and Daniel; their first attempt at a conversation without a translator involves a particularly hilarious amount of improvised sign language, gesticulation and misunderstandings before the wires are finally uncrossed. There are perhaps slightly too many of these kinds of scene, however, the slimming down of which could make the play into a straight-through affair.
My verdict? An entertaining play that is as eye-opening as it is funny – a bit over the top at times, but an important one to see and enjoy.
Chinglish runs at the Park Theatre until 22 April 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.