Theatre Review: Wild Swans

The first stage adaptation of Jung Chang's award-winning novel is a masterpiece.

You might wonder how an award-winning novel of 700 pages can possibly be condensed into a 90-minute stage play. But Sacha Wares's production of Wild Swans at the Young Vic, in association with the American Repertory Theatre and the Actors Touring Company, succeeds in communicating the vast political landscape of twentieth-century China reflected through a personal family history.  

 
Jung Chang has written about three generations of women spanning a century. But playwright Alexandra Wood's adaptation focuses on the period between 1948 and 1978 – when Chairman Mao's People's Republic of China was in its prime – and the plight of the author's parents, De-Hong (Ka-Ling Cheung) and Shou-Yu (Orion Lee). 
 
The production was first performed at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but has come to the UK as part of World Stages London, a theatre festival celebrating the diversity of the capital. 
 
The action has partially begun before the audience have even sat down: the stage reveals a peasant street scene, with the cast chattering away as they work the land (for which real soil lines the stage). Like a work of art, we are encouraged to observe this tableau before the official script is performed; the play officially starts with a chorus scene similar to that of a Brecht play, with each actor giving us a line about their experience of poverty. They then use string puppets – synonymous with exotic eastern culture in many an audience member's mind – to narrate the story of the previous generation. 
 
We are then launched into the personal history of De-Hong. She meets her husband Shou-Yu when ploughing the field, and the dominance of the Communist Party over their personal lives is palpable from the outset: before even suggesting the idea of a relationship to De-Hong herself, Shou-Yu asks her if he can ask the Party (“You're asking my permission to ask their permission?” she jokes). Her mother Yu-Fang (Julyana Soelistyo) finds this ridiculous, but Shou-Yu insists that the Party will undertake thorough background checks on him – something De-Hong's parents could not hope to do.
 
Shou-Yu and De-Hong bond through their dedication to the Communist Party, but it will come to stifle them and destroy their family. Yu-Fang, who was forced into marriage with a warlord as a teenager, is seen by the Party as bourgeois, and is sent away, leaving De-Hong to be punished. And as Shou-Yu bears witness to the reality of Mao's regime, notably the infamous famine that killed tens of millions of people, it gradually dawns on him that there is a lot he doesn't know about the Party. When he dares to question the system, his family learn the real extent of Mao's oppression.
 
Ka-Ling Cheung's American accent is a slight barrier at first. But she acts the part of De-Hong so well, communicating the toll the regime has taken on her, that this soon doesn't matter. We almost cannot believe that the frail, stooping woman at the end of the play is the same actor as the wild swan we know from the first half. She and Orion Lee work perfectly together: the turbulence of their relationship in such difficult times is very authentic. This is also true of Lee's Shou-Yu gradually crumbling as the system he revered so dearly betrays him. 
 
It can't have been easy for Wood to select from such a vast landscape key episodes that express the profound effect of China's history on one family. And she does this with great aplomb, as do the actors. But the most striking element to Wild Swans has to be the set design by Miriam Buether. Throughout the production, the proscenium arch stage is a long, narrow strip backed by panels that change and develop alongside the plot. Actors double up as stage hands as they roll back white paint to reveal red Communist poster art; video artist Wang Gongxin projects film onto the same panels, such as a backdrop of paddy fields at dusk, the blue sky unforgettably beautiful. 
 
The visual journey of the set comes to a head in the final scene. Actors roll back the panels that have been lining the stage and in doing so, open up the stage to reveal twice as much space again, hidden from audience view. The simplicity of this symbolism is at once exciting and touching. We realise how claustrophobic – purposefully – the set has been up until now. And as the stage opens up, Wang's films of modern Chinese life – the building of skyscrapers; Coca-Cola adverts; traffic jams – are projected, and fast-forwarded, onto the panels. China has opened up to the world, and the lost faces of those onstage reflect the uncertainty of what this will bring.
 
Orion Lee as Shou-Yu in Wild Swans. Photo by Chris Nash
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear