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
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit