28 March 2017
With his acclaimed play Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang cleverly satirised the problem over casting white actors in East Asian roles, so expectations are high for his new play, Chinglish. It follows the tortuous efforts of an American white businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, to break into the Chinese market with his family business, Ohio Signage. Initially drawing unsettling easy laughs from poorly translated Chinese signs such as “Deformed men restroom” for disabled toilet, the play goes on to explore the gap between what is said and what is meant in business and personal relationships.
The actors in Chinese roles speak in Mandarin, with surtitles in English, providing plenty of laughs over accidental, and sometimes deliberate, bad translations. There is also comedy in Daniel’s frustrations in understanding and navigating the cultural differences not only between the West and China but between the old guard, represented by minister Cai Guoliang, and the new generation such as vice-minister Xi Yan. He has to tackle untranslatable concepts such as guanxi – a personalisation of business relationships – as well as a system of nepotism and favours.
Daniel, played with sometimes child-like bewilderment by Gyuri Sarossy, is floundering in a world where slight tonal differences in pronunciation of words mean “love” turns to “dust” or “panic” becomes “splat”. He seeks help from Peter, a teacher-turned-consultant who is as rootless in China as he is in his native Leicester, played with diffident humour by Duncan Harte. Siu-see Hung and Windson Liong also make an impression as less than perfect translators as does Lobo Chan as the charming but weary Cai Guoliang. As Xi Yan, Candy Ma conveys a woman who is lonely but far from vulnerable, the face of the bullishly ambitious new China.
Directed by Andrew Keates, Chinglish is a brilliantly funny comedy that also explores aspects of modern China and changing customs in business and politics. With a twisting plot and strong characters, it leaves you laughing but aware of an inevitable chasm of difference between the two cultures that means something will always be lost in translation.
Running to April 22, 2017
Photos: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard