Daniel Nelson



Image by Photo Courtesy Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

That's an example of the slipperiness of translation and interpreters who render a foreign businessman's sales pitch, "Here's why we are worth the money" as "He will explain why he spends money so recklessly."

Many Westerners have smirked at a Chinese restaurant's clumsy attempts to help custmers by presenting a menu with Chinglish phrases, or unknowingly provoked stifled laughter when attempting a Mandarin word by using a tone that produces an inappropriate meaning.

David Henry Hwang runs with the idea in a revival of his play, Chinglish, at the Park Theatre and spins it into a comic tale of what happens when a naive US businessman attempts to sell signage in China without speaking a word of the language. He gets the "help" of a British China Hand teacher, trying to trade on his own involvement in guanxi (close relationships), and help and hindrance from an inebriated government minister foundering in the wake of China's modernisation and by the minister's scheming Dragon Lady deputy. 

As you will have gathered, Hwang isn't afraid of stereotypes and lobs in another as the visiting Caucasian male and the attractive Oriental woman end up in bed together - but Hwang twists cliche by pitting Western idolatry of love against Eastern emphasis on family obligation. Similarly, in another scene he uses and skewers undiscriminating veneration for big business by turning the Ohio Signage businessman's past connection with the Enron scandal into the most impressive part of his CV.

Occasionally - as when a fast-paced mutually incomphensible English-Mandarin conversation is accompanied by extravagant charade-like gestures - the basic joke is stretched to breaking point; and though there are moments of genuine pathos and depth, particularly in the deputy minister's role, characterisation is thin. But it's clever, sharp, funny, fast-paced, well-presented and tremendously entertaining.

Relevance? Need you ask, when another naive US businessman, Donald Trump, is meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping and the two countries may be about to open a new relationship. A lot will depend on the interpreters.

* Chinglish is at the Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4, until 22 April. Info: 7870 6876/ https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/

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