Chinglish – Park Theatre, London

Writer: David Henry Hwang
Director: Andrew Keates
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Another play about China, another word mash title. Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 hit, Chimerica, examined American perceptions of recent Chinese history and now David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, first seen in New York, jumps forward to the present day and dips into the mucky waters of East-West trade amid the new world order. Both reach the conclusion that a lot gets lost in translation.

tell-us-block_editedDaniel (Gyuri Sarossy), an American businessman whose cv is blemished by a past connection with Enron, tells an audience, as if giving a call to arms, that China is the biggest pool of untapped consumers in history. Daniel, in turn, is advised by Peter (Duncan Harte), an Englishman and long-time resident of China, that the key to doing business in that country is guanxi (gwan-she), meaning close relationships. Peter has good guanxi with government minister Cai (Lobo Chan), having secured a place for his son at a top British university, so Daniel hires him as his consultant to help him unravel the mysteries of Chinese language and culture and to get him his own guanxi which, in the context of this play, becomes a euphemism for corruption,

Cai is sympathetic to Daniel’s company, Ohio Signage, supplying signs for a new arts complex, but his deputy is frosty and it becomes clear that Cai may be vulnerable to backstabbing and bloodletting. As deputy minister XI Yan, Candy Ma cuts a figure of smouldering duplicity, like a double agent in a Bond film who will inevitably be bedded by the hero. From here, it is not too difficult to guess the form of the guanxi that will develop between her and Daniel.

Hwang’s play seems unable to make up its mind whether it is a satirical comedy or a drama of intrigue, with the result that it disappoints on both levels. The comedy relies too heavily on the single running gag of mistranslations and the drama is too simplistic to have much credence. Andrew Keates’ patchy staging is sometimes leaden, needing more fire at key moments, and the director makes few concessions to this theatre’s configuration, which has the audience on three sides. Seats along either wing do not represent the best value on this occasion. Still worse, a fundamental flaw in the production design means that a surtitles screen, upon which most of the mistranslation jokes rely, is not easily visible from all seats.

Plenty of interesting points crop up in Chinglish, but they are presented clumsily and, overall, the play is unconvincing. If all Chinese are really as ruthless and corrupt as seen here and all American business people are really as naive as Daniel, perhaps Hwang is making the best case yet in support of Donald Trump’s protectionist agenda.

Runs until 22 April 2017 | Image: Richard Davenport

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