TWO CULTURES, ONE TRICKY DEAL
David Henry Hwang’s play as a hit in the US, and as it premiered at this enterprising little theatre under diretor Andrew Keates, I took an appropriate friend as consultant. For she has travelled repeatedly in China, negotiated there and adopted two children. So after we had both laughed at the absurdities of culture-clash and appreciated the artful, deceptive plotting, she gave her verdict. “Yup. That’s what it’s like”. She recognized the sharp switches of tone, the sudden shouts down the phone, the emotional opacity and different values of an ancient society shaped by Maoist years and scraping now against the expectations of globalized business. Hwang catches it all, in a sharp comedy mocking both sides just about equally.
Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) is an American businessman, a bit of a chancer as it turns out, who is in a minor Chinese city trying to sell signage to its new , wannabe-prestigious arts centre. There are plenty of laughs in the existing stiff mistranslations – ‘TO TAKE NOTICE OF SAFE’ , ‘DEFORMED MAN”S TOILET” etc . There are even more in the sequence of interpretation when we hear the Chinese speech in business meetings, see its real meaning flashed overhead, and then hear the hapless miniskirted interpreter (Siu-See Hung, smilingly deadpan and very funny) giving her version. When Daniel boasts that he is big in Chicago, which he isn’t, and explains that it is not a farming area, her version is “their crops failed long ago”.
Daniel initially thinks he can sew up the deal in a week, but the hangdog, failed-teacher Peter (Duncan Harte) who is his translator and “business consultant” warns him over some grim sour-fish soup that in China all business is built on Guanxi – relationships – and he must nurture those. So he does, but not quite in the way he thinks he is. One great joy of the piece – given the “whiteface” rows and how little airing our cadre of Chinese actors get as a rule – is that it is they who really carry the comedy of the succeeding intrigue of misunderstanding, over-close relationships and intricate betrayal. Lobo Chan as the Minister is wonderful: both funny, threatening and ultimately dignified. He favours high art, singing wailing snatches of Chinese Opera, and abhors the popular taste for acrobatics; he is also tangled up in his sister-in-law’s ambitions and an invisible tough wife.
Candy Ma is equally impressive, sometimes unreadable, sometimes all too clear, illustrating the character’s sharp difference of sexual and marital values compared to the hapless Daniel’s. Credit too to Hung, as both gormless girl interpreter and prosecutor, and Windson Liong as a favoured nephew even more incompetent in translation.
There is a good balance between plot and respect and funny-translation jokes (Deputy Minister Xi’s “I am sleeping with you” to express boredom, or DAniel’s hopeless inability to get the right intonation for his attempts at endearments emerging as Frog Loves To Pee) . And the denouement is finely worked out. A dry awareness of changing times is best expressed in Peter’s dilemma: ten years ago he was one of the few roundeyes living in China who spoke the language, and so much in demand; now the place is full of them and his living is tough but he can’t go home to Leicester because there wouldn’t be any servants to cook and care for him.//
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