Hold onto your dim sum, Chinglish is as complex and gripping a drama as it is a laugh out loud farce on the complexities of the English language.
Daniel runs a small family signage business in Ohio, but wants to break into the Chinese market. With the help of his consultant, Peter, Daniel has to get beyond not just the language barrier, but survive a cataclysmic culture clash. Everything is not what it seems or what anyone says, in Chinglish.
It’s been difficult to know where to start with this review, because Chinese culture is something quite close to me. I’m half Chinese; my mother hails from Hong Kong after her parents settled there after fleeing as refugees from Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution”. I also lent my (shouty) voice to the #stopyellowface campaign. Many of the actors and creatives that stood by me during #stopyellowface protest are also involved in Chinglish, including director Andrew Keates, and Chinglish is a great example of a thriving and talented east Asian acting in spite of the set backs places like the Print Room throw at the issue. I know I shouldn’t really open this review with politics, but then Chinglish itself is inherently about politics, albeit more cultural and personal. But it’s political none the less.
I was expecting Chinglish to be some bawdy comedy on language and nothing much more, but I should have known better than that seeing as it has David Henry Hwang as its playwright, who is also behind the acclaimed Yellowface. Chinglish certainly starts by booting in some incredibly funny lexiconic farce, but very quickly, Chinglish opens itself up into something incredibly complex and gripping. All of Chinglish’s characters hold secrets and have ulterior motives, and well before the close of Act I, you’re completely unsure about what anyone’s real motivation is; there’s corruption and subterfuge left, right, and centre. But the brilliance of Hwang’s writing is that all this enigma and mystery is neatly tied up in some incredibly wry observations about Chinese culture. It’s not just about getting what you want by hook or by crook, but it’s also about saving face and retaining pride and honour, and the real bust-up between these nuances of Western and Eastern cultures that are far more significant than they are amusing. These concepts throw so many spanners into the machinations of Hwang’s characters that you end up with something that is lavishly deep and multi-layered that you simply can’t tear yourself away. In fact, you stop caring that the laughs aren’t coming as thick and as fast than at the start, and you are actually invested in trying to figure our what Hwang’s characters want, and how they’re going to achieve it.
But that’s not to say that Chinglish loses its funny: it retains a masterfully dry and sharp humour throughout. But what’s most interesting is that you’ll end up laughing at bits, but then question yourself as to why you did so. Yes, the language mishaps are amusing, but Chinglish subtly lifts a veil from your perception of what’s going on at some point and you start to even doubt whether everything is actually what is seems, pondering whether some of the vocabulary slip-ups are actually more deliberate and more meanigful that you first thought.
There only thing I can really “criticise” is that those who have a closer affinity with Chinese culture and history are going to get a lot more out of Chinglish than others. But that’s not to say people will get lost. Hwang’s writing clearly highlights the main culture clashes you need to know about and you’ll never be anywhere near out of your depth. But it’s the little things that you’d notice if you’re more aware of Chinese culture that make it even more edifying.
Direction and Production
Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design for Chinglish is absolutely exceptional. Clean and modern, the wall of squares unfolds and contorts to reveal windows, bookshelves, and even a bed. It’s full of hidden properties and surprises just like Hwang’s text, and you’ll be amazed by just how clever it is. But it only does what it needs to do: set a scene and leave the rest of the cast to it. It’s marvellously as slick as it is resourceful.
Keates’ direction also has some wonderful little touches to it too. There are little humorous asides and fidgets from supporting cast members that play with a visual comedy hand in hand with Hwang’s verbal comedy. They’re never too distracting though, and in some cases actually add pace to less punchy passages. But Keates’ also know when you should be completely invested in what’s happening between the main characters. Keates is always sure to draw your attention towards what’s important and you suddenly find yourself deep in the epicentre of the characters’ interactions at points. As much as Keates handles face-paced fun, he also creates listing and luscious moments of intrigue and intimacy. Keates’ direction is incredibly well paced, with the needed spunk, speed, and timing needed for good comedy, but also ensures that the nuance and detail is never rushed past or overlooked.
James Nicholson’s sound design must also be praised, if simply for finding a great selection of Chinese pop songs to play during scene changes, adding verve and appropriate character to tie-up what has happened and set-up what’s about to happen. Also, Christopher Naime’s lighting design really comes into its own during the more poetic and deep sections of Chinglish, turning the stark clean white of most scenes into a heady coloured wash: a sublime juxtaposition.
BREAKING NEWS! The Park Theatre has managed to find a cast of east Asian actors to play east Asian roles. Incredible! Who’d have thought finding people a cast like that was actually possible in London? Sarcasm aside, the casting for Chinglish isn’t just about ensuring that east Asian’s aren’t being whitewashed out of theatre like Hollywood is doing with films like Ghost in the Shell, but actually about finding and prompting some astonishing talent.
Candy Ma is absolutely brilliant in her leading role as Vice Secretary of Culture and seductive and manipulative siren Xi Yan. She commands a fiery presence at all times and is an indomitable force to be reckoned with. But Ma also has an absolutely brilliant ability at being vulnerable that verges on intoxicating. Ma may be all dragon’s wrath to begin with, but is astonsihing deft at being a human caught between traditional China, it’s brave new modern identity, and honour in a loveless marriage. She really grasps at Xi Yan’s own insecurities whilst sinking her teeth right into the trepidation and doubt in her resolve: especially as it comes with such a high level of risk.
Co-lead Gyuri Sarossy also commands a great performance too, and works fantastically well as the hapless American constantly hitting Ma’s Xi Yan steely brick walls. Sarossy nails American arrogance without it ever being insincere and caricature, and certainly gets across the enthusiasm that makes up for him being absolutely out of his depth Sarossy brings out an inherent comedy in his bullish hubris that is perfectly on the right side of loveable as it is laughable.
There isn’t a weak member in the rest of the cast, either. Lobo Chan is wonderful as the cowardly and languishing Party Member trying to keep his position with as little effort as possible, and Duncan Harte is brilliantly eccentric as the “unhinged Westerner”. Siu-See Hung, Windson Liong, and Minhee Yeo are also great ensemble actors that take on the more outlandish and deliberately comical supporting characters with gusto and flamboyance that makes their roles as memorable as the rest of the company.
Far more than just a (yellow?) fevered comedy, Chinglish is masterfully complex and engrossing in exploring far more than just the funny side of bad translations.
Chinglish plays at the Park Theatre, London, N4 3JP, until 22 April. Tickets are £18 – £29.50. To book, visit www.parktheatre.co.uk.