“Are you a small fish or a big pond?”
David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face was the first play mounted in the studio at the Park Theatre when it opened in 2013, so it feels apt that the playwright’s return to the venue sees him promoted to the main house for Chinglish. Seen on Broadway in 2011, it’s a more light-hearted take on East Asian issues than we are perhaps seeing in our theatres, or in the limited range of East Asian theatre that gets put on here I should say, and proves an enjoyable treat.
Riffing on the chuckles that come from mistranslated menus and signs (I swear, it is one of my favourite things to do in touristy abroad), Chinglish follows the efforts of an American businessman trying to break into the Chinese market by providing accurately translated signage. But the divide is a big one, linguistically and culturally, and as he searches for people to help in his negotiations, he learns that he can’t always trust the words coming out of their mouths.
Hwang and director Andrew Keates demonstrate this skilfully and most amusingly through a series of bilingual scenes where we see the true art of translation, as meaning and intent are filtered and interpreted and sometimes twisted. Duncan Harte and Siu-see Hung are brilliant as the translators who find themselves out of their depths, and this reinforces one of the play’s key themes in the importance of language in establishing relationships, both professionally and personally.
Perversely, it is the latter that preoccupies Gyuri Sarossy’s Daniel and Candy Ma’s Xi Yan as business starts to get supplanted by pleasure and here, the linguistic barrier acts as a kind of release for them to sink into something uncomplicatedly sexual. There’s more to it than that in the end but the play does take its time getting there and paradoxically ends up feeling rushed at its climax. But in Tim McQuillen-Wright’s handsomely appointed design, Chinglish provides much to think about, not least in the implications for a nation – ours – that is increasingly inward-looking and obdurately against the learning of modern foreign languages.