Park Theatre, London – until 22 April 2017
The ever-increasing number of businesses tending towards globalisation indicates that the advantage of speaking multiple languages is becoming less and less important. Business is still mainly conducted in English and doesn’t look to be shifting any time soon. Signs in multiple countries provide dual translation to appeal to a growing, more mobile tourist market; native languages now have to share space with an invasive, more commonly understandable alternative. But China is still a world power that conducts much of its business in its variety of native tongues – the sheer size of the country stubbornly resists what may be an inevitable global shift to a single method of communication. Chairman Mao’s simplification of the traditional Chinese characters could be perceived to open the doors to foreign commerce, but was initially implemented to increase literacy and enable The Cultural Revolution to stride forward faster.
David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish looks at the crossover between the Westernised and Chinese cultures, both in business, in marriage and in dedication to one’s partner. For all it promotes itself as a light-hearted comedy, there are some deeply rooted messages about the differences between the two traditions and the arrogance of Western society to assume that China will simply conduct itself in accordance with Anglo-American customs. One of the many downsides of globalisation is the degradation of understanding other cultures – when in China, simply speak English and hope others will understand.
Hwang and director Andrew Keates don’t sufficiently explore this train of thought however, opting instead for a more superficial, somewhat slapstick alternative. Translators miscommunicate common phrases for belly laughs; stereotyping and caricature performances run rife; each punch line is hammed up for maximum hilarity and minimum impact. The effect is waring and skirts dangerously close to pantomime, sacrificing concept in the process.
Certain insights into the differences between cultures are initially intriguing. The philosophy of guanxi – loosely interpreted as the relationships that individuals cultivate for mutual gain – is one worth developing further. Business, it seems, is largely still anti-capitalist, state regulated and awarded by currying favour with relevant officials. This is most closely realised between leads Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) and Xi Yan (Candy Ma), as Daniel attempts to persuade Minister of Culture Cai Guoliang (Lobo Chan) to hire his American company and provide signage for the new cultural centre. Xi Yan, as Vice-Minister, is initially frosty, but has her own agenda to help Daniel and subvert her boss for certain political gains.
Candy Ma is the lynchpin in Chinglish, effectively communicating in broken English the cultural naivety painfully present in Daniel’s opinion of the country. She wins over the audience not by overacting every comedic line, but by displaying emotional layering that slowly reveals itself as the play progresses. The Vice-Minister’s motivations seem selfish and incomprehensible, but ultimately are a product of the difference between the two philosophies. Love is a Western religion, held aloft to the detriment of everything else. Not so in Chinglish, where commitment is the ultimate ideal, be it to a marriage, a career, or a philosophy. Love clouds the matter with affection and emotion.
Other characters are competent and cleverly jump without pause between the two languages. Teacher turned consultant Peter Timms (Duncan Harte) is fluent in both Mandarin and English, showcasing the disconnect between embodying a character’s personality and comprehending every part of their speech. But Harte, along with Chan, gives a superfluous performance, focussing on generating laughter and ignoring any deeper connection to the material. This approach only works with the ensemble roles, as these fleeting characters don’t require further development and so can simply be funny without being distracting.
The premise of Chinglish eludes to an insightful and layered production – certainly Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design reflects the opening and shutting of doors necessary to achieve business success in this environment. But Keates has made the decision to focus instead on emphasising the comedic differences in trying to fuse the two cultures, which ultimately will divide opinion.