Review: Wild Swans @ Young Vic

Today, the first ever Chinese Renmimbi offshore bond was launched in London. Few in the West could have missed the recent news about Bo Xilai. China continues to dominate news headlines everywhere and there couldn’t be a more apt time to see the stage version of Wild Swans , which chronicles China’s stormy history over a 30 year period culminating in Mao’s death. An international collaboration between Young Vic, American Repertory Theatre and Actors Touring Company, this production celebrates World Stages London.

Involving a large cast and constantly changing scenes to tell the story of a family set during a turbulent political period within 90 mins, this is an ambitious production. This is no small feat as Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans is over 700 pages long, spanning a much wider period. The play, however, condenses the book to focus largely on Chang’s parents and it does so without losing track of the wider political and cultural context. On the whole, I think this adaptation is a success because, despite the racing through thirty years of history, it brings to life the personal and political struggles of millions of people in China as exemplified by this one family. Its illustration of how communism, originally designed to remedy social injustices, eventually led to human suffering on a grand scale is gripping.

The compelling story is depicted through music, dance, puppetry (one of the highlights of the production), video and design. Miriam Buether’s set evolves to capture the period effectively and is, especially, breathtaking for how it uses considerably little space for an epic story. The scene changes give the play a physical quality as all the actors are involved with the dismantling and assembling of sets. The overall context of physical labour portrayed by the scene changes is relevant to the period although, after a while, they can become a tad tedious. The play also features striking videos by Beijing artist Wang Gongxin which neatly convey pain, despair and, towards the end, hope.

The acting is uneven throughout the production; some of the scenes involving Mao’s Red Guards turn into laughable parodies which, I am sure, isn’t the intended effect. Nevertheless, the family of four (grandmother, father, mother and daughter) deliver a good enough performance collectively. Ka-Ling Cheung, who plays the mother, gives the best performance; we first meet her as a young woman and watch her grow old before our eyes within the 90 minute duration which I find to be quite remarkable.

There will be critics who say that the 90 minute play doesn’t do much justice to the book. Granted, it is difficult to get to know all of the characters properly given the time restraint. But this play is much more than about its individual characters. Together, the characters give us a good starting point to understand one of the most tumultuous periods in China’s modern history.

Until 13 May 2012.
Written by Jung Chang.
Adapted by Alexandra Wood.
Directed by Sacha Wares.
Performance time is 90 minutes with no interval.

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