A play about a real person will have to contain a certain amount of fiction dreamed up by the author. After all, it is unlikely the writer has been around for every conversation between the subject and other people and therefore there is alway an element of poetic licence in the writing. When the historical figure is someone who had built his entire career on lies and falsehoods then the lines between fact and fiction become amazingly blurred. For an example of where this happens, pop down to the Greenwich Theatre and see Ian Lindsay and Jeremy Cantwell’s play Chinese Whispers.
Chinese Whispers tells the story of Sir Edmund Backhouse Bn (Mark Farrelly) from his time at Oxford in the 1890s when he used to amaze and shock his friends such as Max Beerbohm (Matt Ian Kelly) with his oddly-timed disappearances and his relationship with a local waiter (Dermot Agnew). Through to his time in Peking, working for Dr. George Ernest Morrison (Peter Hardy) in the office of The Times. His collaboration with John Bland (Steve Nallon) on his 1910 history, “China Under the Empress Dowager” and 1914 book, “Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking”. And, in all his time in China, his relationship with his Factotum (Owl Young).
Now, the thing you need to know about Sir Edmund Backhouse is that he was probably the most successful confidence trickster and fraudster of his generation. Or was he? That is the question. There is a lot of evidence to suppose that he was but, at the same time, there have been some that think maybe some of the stuff he wrote about was actually true after all. To be honest, nobody will ever know for sure but in this production, it’s pretty clear that the writers have agreed with the standard opinion that Sir Edmund was a fraudster. And this is one of my problems with the production. Because, as I said before there will be invention in the text of the play then maybe we have too many levels of falsehood which means, every utterance is not to be trusted. If a man is a liar then making him more of one doesn’t necessarily move the story on well. Having said that, I have been looking into Sir Edmund and he is quite a fascinating person in his own right so I can thank the authors for making me aware of the man and interested enough to look into him in more detail.
The production feels very Edwardian theatrical in its construct. Pete Shaw’s set consists mainly of some garishly decorated scenery flats, a desk, chaise longue and a small table, leaving the stage remarkably empty. Mark Farrelly, as Sir Edmund, often breaks the fourth wall to converse with the audience and tell them what he is up to. This works pretty well as a device to keep everyone up to speed but, when the Factotum started addressing the audience as well, it felt a bit forced as a joke especially as Owl Young’s portrayal of a Chinese servant is, to my mind, rather too stereotypical making me feel slightly uncomfortable seeing it and laughing at his antics.
Whilst the show itself is entertaining and engaging, I was left feeling a bit frustrated that I didn’t understand anything about Sir Edmund and his motivation. Born into an aristocratic family with money, Edmund was obviously talented, learning many languages, including three varieties of Chinese. He comes across as an intelligent well-spoken man who could easily have made a good, honest career for himself in the British Empire but instead chose the life he did. There is nothing in the play that I could see that explained why.
So, whilst I had some problems with the writing of Chinese Whispers, the actual production is not too bad. It was fun and entertaining, with a nice, and rather unexpected end. It is not a perfect show but Chinese Whispers was a bit of light fun and makes a jolly good night out.
Review by Terry Eastham
Chinese Whispers is based on the bizarre life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, a confidence trickster of the Victorian age who pulled off audacious swindles against entire nations. A highly comic look at the notorious exploits of a man who claimed to have salacious affairs with everyone from Oscar Wilde to the Empress Dowager Cixi of China.
Written by Ian Lindsay and Jeremy Cantwell and featuring Mark Farrelly, Steve Nallon, Peter Hardy, Matt Ian Kelly and Owl Young
Greenwich Theatre (Main House)
2 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, London SE8 8ES