Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Review Chinglish

A comedy from an American-Chinese playwright strikes a chord with Peter Barker's own memories of living in China.

by David Henry Hwang

A Matter Of Interpretation

In search of new business, American Daniel Cavanaugh (Gyury Sarossy) lands up in a regional Chinese city that no Westerner can place on a map, but one that is larger than Birmingham.

Without knowing a word of the language, his aim is to persuade the Chinese municipal authorities to purchase the signs produced by his struggling family firm.

US playwright David Henry Hwang's timely comedy examines the linguistic and cultural chasm between China and the West.

Back in Ohio, Cavanaugh gives a lecture to a local chamber of commerce, framing the action which leads to a series of flashbacks three years before,  giving the lowdown on the true cost and bewilderment of his experience in China. 

Surfing the web, the businessman, tainted by a past association with corrupt corporation Enron, had seen a trading opportunity and a chance for his own redemption in the botched, often automated, translations on bilingual Chinese/English road signs

He enlists the help of British ex-pat and sinophile Peter Timms (Duncan Harte) who instructs him in the concept of 关系 (guanxi, loosely translated as connections or social networks) and offers to use his own guanxi to procure a deal for him with an arts complex in the Chinese city.

The minister of culture Cai Gouliang (Lobo Chan) loves his opera, his strong liquor and has a series of convoluted side deals on the go; his deputy Xi Yan (Candy Ma)  appears to be a prim nationalist, but has her own very complicated agenda.

The naive American thinks that get-up-and-go is what you need to succeed in China, and the sinophile Englishman who has fallen in love with calligraphy and porcelain would like to be Chinese in his heart.

Yet even every interpreter has his or her own agenda. One thing Cavanaugh learns as his words are lost in translation, and he can in turn tip off the chamber of commerce to, is, "When doing business in China, always bring your own translator."

The stage business in this 2011 play is conducted both in English and Mandarin - with English surtitles.

While the mistranslations are milked for laughs, Chinglish starts from a real situation. This reviewer spent some years in China and, in one instance, even had to work out that a menu's "sweaty mouth chicken" was in fact meant to be "mouth watering". 

Hwang writes at least as much from the viewpoint of someone of Chinese origin as he does from that of a Westerner. He wrings laughs out of multi-layered circumstances, while not holding up either the Chinese or Westerners for ridicule or damnation, or at least no more than they deserve for their minor frailties or deeper needs.

Ma gives a fine performance as Xi Yan, fiercely ambitious but isolated, while Sarossy is a convincing foil as Cavanaugh, blundering naively through the maze that is both the new consumerist and ancient traditional China. Along with Englishman Peter Timms played by Harte, they are types but avoid parody as the complexities of the situation emerge.

The simple and ingenious set by Tim McQuillen Wright, a backwall of Chinese-style wooden lockers, opens up and folds out to create doors, windows, even a hotel bed. There is also an elegance and
thoughfulness to the direction of Andrew Keates, while keeping the laughs coming.

Hwang uses, yet digs beneath,  the stereotypes with this East-West encounter in a play which juxtaposes Western and Asian characters in an insightful and witty manner.  It's a green light for a humane and funny play where everyone ends wiser, even if some have prospered and some have lost. 

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