Spotlight On… Star of Chinglish, Duncan Harte

Chinglish by David Henry Hwang 
Park200, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP Wednesday 22nd March – Saturday 22nd April 2017 Press Night: Tuesday 28th March, 7pm 

To book tickets: Park Theatre Box Office

Tell me about Chinglish and your character, Peter Timms?

Chinglish tells the story of Daniel, an American businessman, and his increasingly frustrated attempts to broker a deal in China—a country about which he knows next to nothing. On the face of it, David Henry Hwang’s play is a comedy about cultural and linguistic miscommunication. Beyond this, though, it’s both a scathing satire on business and political ethics, and a poignant study of individuals searching for somewhere to belong. This is where Peter Timms comes in. He’s a British latter-day Old China Hand—the title historically given to long-term Western ex-pats, fluent in Chinese and held in high esteem for their wide-ranging local knowledge—hired by Daniel to be his translator and business consultant. Unfortunately for Peter, China’s economic modernization and the growing demand for Westerners with specific expertise have rendered his model of generalist knowledge obsolete. Can he successfully move with the times, or will he be left as a relic of a bygone era? The play was originally performed in 2011, but with its talk of international trade deals, political integrity, nationalism and the construction of a Great Wall, Chinglish feels more topical than ever. This is certainly the case with Peter Timms, a British man dreaming of past glories, attempting to forge deals in China, convinced he has a special relationship with an American partner, hopeful he can still be a player in a new global era and yet fearful that it’s all slipping away.

What was your initial impression of the script?

I loved it. There were several moments when I laughed out loud, which is always a good sign! I’m a big fan of David Henry Hwang’s work. Plays such as M. Butterfly and Yellow Face tackle serious issues, but never take themselves too seriously. He’s so alive to the many internal tensions and contradictions in gender and racial politics and is not afraid to send himself up. In Chinglish he gleefully embraces various American, Chinese and British stereotypes and uses these to great comic effect, whilst simultaneously skewering them. What’s so impressive is how in using such an irreverent lightness of touch he frequently ends up crafting heart-breaking moments. Chinglish is a case in point. It could largely be described as a farce, and the audience initially encounters China through the eyes of Daniel as he goes down the rabbit hole. Consequently, the characters may initially seem rather broad in their depictions. But they become more fully-formed in a way that parallels Daniel’s own growing self-awareness—and I do think it’s a play as much about the challenges of knowing yourself as the challenges of knowing another culture. The farce structure gradually gives way to something rawer, ending up in place that is both darker and more tender than might initially be expected. For all the quick-fire lines and caustic cynicism there’s real compassion and even lyricism in the writing.

Do you think it will be easy to translate from page to stage?

The most obvious technical challenge is the constant switching between languages, which requires the use of surtitles so the audience can follow the action. We’re accustomed to watching films with subtitles, and opera is regularly performed in other languages with surtitles, but it’s much more of a rarity in theatre in the UK. Fortunately, designer Tim McQuillen-Wright has come up with a pretty ingenious set, which integrates the surtitles while revealing a few surprises as the play progresses. Much of the humour derives from the juxtaposition of what is said and how it is (mis)translated and I think the audience will quickly become accustomed to—and take delight in—the surtitles. The other main challenge is one common to farces, and that’s the need to be very precise with timing. Andrew Keates, our director, has a real ear for the musicality of David Henry Hwang’s writing and we’ve talked a lot about how the play works rhythmically. Hopefully our main concern will be accommodating those rhythms to much laughter from audiences once we open!

Did you have any ideas about what you wanted to bring to the role of Peter Timms?

Peter Timms is a gift of a part for me. I’d only just graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and here was a production that required a white British actor who could speak Mandarin. Before training, I had lived for two years in Shanghai (where I studied Chinese and taught English), with a further nine months in Hong Kong, and completed an MA and PhD in film with a focus on China. Having Chinese language abilities is obviously crucial for playing Peter, but I think I’ve also brought additional personal experience to the role. I left Shanghai in 2008, but have returned several times and I never fail to be astounded by the pace of change. I have British and American friends who have now lived in China for over a decade. They moved over in their early twenties looking for new horizons and, for various reasons, decided to stay—or at least not leave. It’s a significant distinction. Some have forged successful careers and are very much at ease is modern cosmopolitan Shanghai. Others though, talk ruefully about the rapid disappearance of the lifestyle they enjoyed when they first arrived. Simply being fluent in English is no longer the golden ticket it once was, as they are now competing with new waves of young Western graduates who have strategically studied Chinese at university, not to mention highly educated Chinese nationals, many of whom have postgraduate degrees from top international universities. Meanwhile, the cost of living has risen exponentially. They feel left behind, but they are anxious about moving elsewhere, as they have no real experience of the marketplace outside China. I’m fortunate to be very happy in London, whilst also having fond memories of living in China, but I can easily imagine what it would be like for Peter to feel not only geographically but also temporally displaced.

How does the Park Theatre lend itself to the piece?

This is my first time working at the Park and it’s been an absolute delight. David Henry Hwang’s play lends itself to audience asides at certain points and I think these will work very well in the Park 200 space. The thrust staging gives an intimacy to some of the quieter moments in the play, and draws the audience into the chaos of the larger scenes. I know the Park Theatre is striving to broaden the demographics of regular theatre audiences and hopefully Chinglish will play a role in that.

What would you say to encourage people to buy a ticket?

If you know nothing about China, you should definitely come. If you know lots about China, you should also definitely come. It’s sexy, it’s moving, and it’s got a sting in its tail. But most of all, it’s outrageously funny.

Thanks to Duncan for a wonderful interview, wishing you all well for the run.

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