Wild Swans – review

Young Vic, London

As someone who hasn't read Jung Chang's memoir, I came to this stage version with an open mind. I was bowled over by Sacha Wares's production, jointly presented by the Young Vic, American Repertory Theatre and Actors Touring Company as part of the World Stages season, and I was much moved by a story that views Maoist China through the prism of one family's experiences.

Alexandra Wood's adaptation runs for 90 minutes and gives us a series of snapshot visions of the tumultuous changes China experienced between 1948 and 1978. It's a story of three generations, but the prime focus is on the author's parents, De-hong and Shou-yu. We see them working the land in 1949 and the father seeking the Communist party's permission for their marriage. We also see the political loyalty of both parents put to the test. De-hong is punished partly because her mother, once a warlord's concubine, was a member of the privileged class. Shou-yu is detained and exiled to a labour camp for his criticisms of the party and for writing a protest letter to Mao. The author survives the family's torments and in 1978, as a dedicated English student, is allowed to leave China for Britain.

Much obviously is left out. But Wares's production, through the genius of Miriam Buether's design, pinpoints the unfolding story of Mao's regime. It is as if the stage, scene by scene, is gradually opening up to reveal the historical narrative. Thus the evening begins with an evocation of the chaotic bustle of pre-People's Republic China seething with water vendors, wildfowl, booksellers and bargaining. A hessian backdrop is then stripped away to usher us into a world of propagandist poster art, rural rituals and banner-waving Red Guards. That too gives way, thanks to the stunning video work of Wang Gongxin, to a vision of the watery labour camps, steam-belching factories and crowded cityscapes of China in the late Mao years.

It is the astonishing visuals that will stay in the memory. But we never lose sight of the human story and of the family's struggle for survival. One scene stands out as marking the peripeteia, or turning point, in the action. A rural commune celebrates its produce with outsize aubergines and tomatoes. But when unrealistic grain targets are set, the clear-sighted Shou-yu defies the notion that "if we imagine it, it can be achieved". That is the moment that precipitates his downfall and leads to his realisation that Mao is selling China's grain to finance nuclear weapons. What is moving is that the protest comes from a fervent loyalist rather than an instinctive dissident.

Orion Lee as the author's father, Ka-Ling Cheung as the mother and Julyana Soelistyo as the grandmother delineate their characters with swift economy. And what impresses is how much of Maoist China has been crammed into a single evening. On the way home, I was reading a magazine article about modern China and how it was rapidly overtaking the US not just economically but also in terms of education and civic infrastructure. It is salutary to be reminded through Wild Swans of the human cost of China's progress to global superpower.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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