Chinese Whispers – a play exploring the “bizarre life of Sir Edmund Backhouse” – is a difficult production to define. As it attempts to guide us through the audacious swindles of this Victorian confidence trickster, it takes the audience on a journey in which lies and truth, theatrical genre and motivation, all become blurred.
The primary disappointment of Chinese Whispers is its persistence in the use of monologues to tell Sir Edmund’s story. Whilst it is undeniably the tales that are told that peak the audience’s interest, the continual exposition becomes tiresome and neglects the visual element of theatre that separates it from a mere recital or audio book. Furthermore, at times the audience are unsure whether to believe Sir Edmund as the play’s primary narrator, due to his deceitful reputation. Whilst this may be seen as a successful portrayal of a dubious character, the lack of clarity also hinders plot understanding and progression.
It is understandable that the productions small cast of 5 male actors limits the plays ability to portray some scenes; such as a rebellion in colonial China. This issue is often creatively resolved by an innovative use of projection and animation, instead of the more common solution of multi-roling. However, the style of the animations does not seem to fit the style of the play, with one projection of a discussion between Lord Kitchener, Lloyd George and Asquith being more reminiscent of what you may find on GCSE History revision website, rather than in a theatrical production.
The style of the play in general is somewhat confused. Generally, we are led to believe that we are supposed to be enjoying a comical performance. Various references to the audience and destructions of the fourth wall evidently incite laughter, yet at times feel like contrived after-thoughts that are “trying too hard” to be funny. This quest for comedy combined with the play’s biographical and historical preoccupations – namely British colonialism in China – is at times jarring. This is mostly evidenced through the role of Sir Edmund’s Chinese factotum. His sensitive, submissive and clueless demeanour accompanied by intentionally inaccurate grammar and exaggerated accent cease to conjure comedy when his role becomes an evident stereotype that feels insensitive regarding the historical context.
Overall, Chinese Whispers succeeds its endeavours to illuminate audiences about the life of a man embroiled in lies, deceit and confidence trickery. However, its means of conveying Sir Edmund’s story is at times tedious, clichéd and fails to utilise theatre’s primary faculties.
Chinese Whispers played at the Greenwich Theatre until July 23.