Bad Chinese to English translations are the stuff of internet legend. My personal favourite sign – ‘Do not Disturb, Tiny Grass is Dreaming’ – sadly doesn’t make it into David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, but there are still plenty of hearty belly laughs to go around in this comedy with hidden depths about an American businessman trying to make it in China.
Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) has spotted an opportunity for his Cleveland-based firm – supplying signage for a new arts centre in Guiyang. The only problem? He doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture. Employing the services of Peter (Duncan Harte), a fluent Chinese-speaking British “consultant”, Daniel pitches his proposal to a government minister (Lobo Chan) and finds himself getting along a little too well with vice-minister Xi Yan (Candy Ma). Chaos, confusion and rumours of corruption ensue… but who really has the upper hand – and why?
A strong cast, directed by Andrew Keates, handle the bilingual script with ease, with Candy Ma and Duncan Harte particularly impressive as they slip effortlessly from Mandarin to English and back again. Gyuri Sarossy, meanwhile, hits exactly the right note as the bewildered Daniel, his early cockiness fading rapidly as he begins to realise what he’s got himself into, and his later scenes with Ma are loaded with an unexpected emotional intensity.
Though a good proportion of the script is in Chinese, the audience never feels lost in translation, thanks to the provision of surtitles throughout (though this does sometimes mean turning away from the actor who’s speaking in order to keep up with what they’re saying). This gives us an advantage over most of the characters, who only speak either English or Chinese, and allows us to appreciate the humour in both the hilariously inept efforts of the Chinese interpreters and Daniel’s fumbling attempts to speak Mandarin himself. There’s no question of taking sides; the good-natured humour targets both East and West equally, warding off any accusations of prejudice in either direction.
Ironically, from our privileged position of bilingualism, one of the hardest scenes to follow is mostly in English (in fact it’s so tricky that we share the characters’ jubilation and relief when they finally understand each other). And it’s here that Hwang moves away from light comedy, and into something altogether more complex. This isn’t just an opportunity for us all to have a good laugh at people making language mistakes – and just as well; as funny as these undoubtedly are, a solid two hours of them might be a bit exhausting.
Where the play really gets interesting is in its exploration of the fundamental difference in business, political and cultural practices between East and West. As business consultant Peter discovers to his cost, sometimes even being able to speak the local lingo like a native isn’t enough; in such vastly different cultures, a word that’s directly translated from one language to another can still mean something completely different.
Just as fascinating as the script is Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set, which begins as a simple panelled wall but then unfolds like origami (yes I know, wrong country) to reveal hidden doors, windows, a restaurant kitchen and even a bedroom. As a result, each scene change offers an intriguing opportunity to see what it’ll do – and where it’ll take us – next.
Chinglish is a lot of fun, with some great comic performances and a few unexpected twists and turns that prove worth waiting for. But it’s also a genuinely interesting play to watch, from both a linguistic and business perspective. Not everyone ends up getting what they want (in fact, make that hardly anyone), but the bittersweet conclusion comes with some important lessons for everyone involved – and lends new meaning to Daniel’s own top tip to “always bring your own translator”.
And if you just enjoy laughing at funny Chinese signs – well, it’s got plenty of those too.
Chinglish is at Park Theatre until 22nd April.