Wild Swans

Jung Chang, Adapted by Alexandra Wood
Young Vic
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Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book Credit: Chris Nash
Joanne Fong, Annie Chang, and Orion Lee with that Little Red Book Again Credit: Chris Nash
Puppets Credit: Chris Nash

Twenty years ago, Wild Swans was a global publishing sensation, selling untold millions of copies. The producers of this stage presentation of Jung Chang's story would obviously love to emulate that kind of popularity but go about things in a very different way.

600 pages have been distilled down to less than 90 minutes of playing time. This means that almost all of the detail in a supposed biography / autobiography, along with the sensationalism and much of the sentimentality has been pared down to essentials for a drama.

For the most part, that is no bad thing as this version might offer only brief glimpses of life in China during the mid to late Twentieth Century, when Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book decided the fates of millions, but it rings true. More pertinently, unlike the book, the messages here do not get lost in a novelist's desire to grab the attention with shock tactics.

The real strength of director Sasha Wares's vision, which is co-produced by the Young Vic with Diane Paulus's American Repertory Theater and the Actors Touring Company, lies in the production values rather than the pretty lightweight script penned by Alexandra Wood.

Designer Miriam Buether almost appears to be conscious of the opportunity to use this text to market her abundant talents. As a result, she is bound to win awards for her imagination and ambition.

The opening scenes take place on a heavily-peopled collective farm in a very narrow stage space that is as wide as the theatre itself. The soil seems to be a permanent fixture but is literally swept away to musical accompaniment revealing a hospital ward. The clinically white walls are then watered down to welcome the Red Guards and their cruel persecutions with Communist murals. Before the end, the stage is flooded to become a paddy field and then adorned with city images before an overly-sentimentalised but nevertheless moving denouement.

These sets form the backdrop for a family saga that leans heavily towards the matriarchal. The adventures of Julyana Soelistyo as concubine-Grandmother Yu-Fang are largely skipped over to concentrate on Katie Leung's Er-Hong (later Jung Chang)'s mother.

Ka-Ling Cheung is this feisty fighter De-Hong, a dedicated Communist who marries a man even more committed to the cause and boy does Orion Lee, giving a sensitive performance as Shou-Yu, suffer for his allegiances. The senior civil servant is literally driven mad but never gives up on principles that are admirable in the abstract, if uncomfortable when seen in close-up, causing his family anguish on a constant basis.

The last generation is represented by the future writer, seen more as an observer of her parents' predicament than a character until the closing scenes when she moves centre stage.

Viewers of this incarnation of the story may learn far less about the history and politics of China in the last century than those who read the book but instead, will enjoy a memorable stage experience.

Wild Swans is the curtain-raiser for the World Stages London Season of international work, which continues in eight theatres across the city for the next couple of months.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher