Since the Print Room came under fire for whitewashing a Howard Barker play set in China earlier this year, three notable productions featuring East Asian actors graced UK stages. At different venues and produced by different companies, they were too close in time to the Print Room’s racism and to each other to be a deliberate, unified challenge. Instead, they optimistically indicate a sea change in on-stage visibility of East Asian actors. Perhaps they will no longer be relegated to silent maids, martial artists and geeky mathematicians; instead they will take on leading roles that showcase the diverse talent of British theatre.
The latest of these productions is the European premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, where east-west culture clash comes to a head within language and love. Equally devastating and hilarious, Hwang makes his characters vibrant and alive rather than fully relying on stereotypes and shallow humour to generate laughs. Though the script is over-convoluted with too many layers of deception, it’s a fantastic vehicle for diversity, smartly written and great fun.
When American Daniel Cavanaugh (Gyuri Sarossy) from Ohio Signage wants to break into the Chinese market for high-quality signs, he engages British consultant and long-time resident of China Peter Thomas (Duncan Harte) to help him negotiate the country’s approach to business deals. It’s not so easy, of course. The poor translators he contends with in meetings with Minister Cai (Lobo Chan) provide much of the humour, but the cultural and linguistic misunderstandings between him and those he encounters balance the gags with gravitas and poignancy. His liaisons with vice minister Xi (Candy Ma) are particularly moving – Hwang’s dialogue in these scenes is genuine and heartfelt as the characters decipher differing interpretations of love and marriage.
Director Andrew Keates, a diversity advocate and organiser of the Print Room protest, uses diagonals and the front corners of the thrust well and nails the comic timing. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s cubic back wall reveals an array of detail, though there’s an evident flimsiness to the build occasionally hinders.
The cast are excellent. Bilingual to native standards, they fully convince in both languages. Ma and Sarossy have touching chemistry, and Harte is haplessly and charmingly English. Chan shows great range as the minister and has some particularly lovely moments with Harte though his role is underwritten.
Both clever and much needed for its outward looking and global perspective, Chinglish adds the sort of narrative rarely seen on London stages. With hope, the backlash against the Print Room and excellent productions like Chinglish will usher in a new era of diversity. With conscious programming and creative choices, the best international theatre can sit along side that from our shores and create a truly global theatre landscape in the UK rather than being a token effort.
Chinglish runs through 22 April.
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