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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What the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema means for actors

It’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie, Trumbo, which resembles television at its most unadventurous.

Speak to many film professionals today and you will hear the same cry: Give me a series! It’s not only the security of a long-term contract. There is also the attractiveness of high-calibre writing and the relative liberty of working for an AMC or an HBO, a Netflix or an Amazon, compared to a movie studio.

Directors such as Todd Haynes (who made Mildred Pierce for HBO during a seven-year hiatus from cinema that ended last year with Carol) and Steven Soderbergh (who has defected permanently to television and is currently in negotiations for a possible third round of his Cinemax series The Knick starring Clive Owen) both speak of the creative freedoms afforded them in the TV world.

Soderbergh is currently lining up a new HBO show, Mosaic, which will star Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund. It’s been described as an interactive, “choose your own adventure” experience that allows viewers to follow different narrative paths, presumably in the manner of the once-popular children’s books: “You find a sword. If you pick it up and slay the dragon, turn to page 48. If you, like, can’t be bothered or whatever, turn to page 65.”

The boundary between TV and film performers was once rigidly patrolled, with television the training ground for cinema; once an actor moved up to the major league, there would be ignominy in returning to the practice yard. It’s a truism to say this is no longer the case.

The traffic of familiar faces flows freely back and forth without snobbery or preconceptions. And though there are still actors who can be TV A-listers while remaining unknown in the film world – Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) and Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey), both former residents of Coronation Street, spring to mind – it is more common now for a performer’s star value to be bankable across the TV/cinema divide.

A case in point is Bryan Cranston, who was a reliable and recognisable TV actor for many years, often in a comic capacity (Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle), before he became an outright star for playing an accidental crystal-meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. In Cranston’s case, his TV success must have helped push Trumbo into production, a new film in which he plays the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, The Brave One), who continued writing under other names after being blacklisted for being a Communist.

Like some of the other movies that have addressed the same dark period in Hollywood’s history (Guilty By Suspicion, One of the Hollywood Ten), Trumbo is all conscience and no panache. Cranston doesn’t discredit himself in the lead – he is studied, level-headed and workmanlike, and he has one wordless and especially powerful scene, when he is humiliated during a body search before being admitted to his prison cell.

But it’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie that resembles television at its most unadventurous. Sure, he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But that figures. Hollywood adores him (rightly so) but it also loves atoning for its sins in drearily respectable dramas like Trumbo.

My favourite example of the richness that can come from the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema is the case of Alec Baldwin. Here is an actor whose career has been at various points promising, fascinating and mysteriously self-sabotaging. But Tina Fey’s fiendishly inspired NBC sitcom 30 Rock has been his salvation. Having only caught occasional episodes of it over the years, I am currently picking my way through every minute of it and marvelling at the interplay between Baldwin’s real-life persona and career and that of his character, Jack Donaghy.

When this sort of thing is done badly, it can capsize a scene and even an entire movie – the new superhero comedy Deadpool, which features Ryan Reynolds in character cracking jokes about Ryan Reynolds, is a particularly grisly example. But 30 Rock gets the balance right in a way that creates a dazzling comic frisson.

There are numerous references to Baldwin’s filmography but the boldest overlap yet occurs in the 100th episode when Donaghy launches into a warning against the dangers of movie stars appearing on television. What it amounts to is a précis of Baldwin’s own career:

“Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are, even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbour, stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. Be the biggest thing on the small screen [but] you want to hit rock bottom again? Go on network television.”

The joke, of course, is that 30 Rock didn’t sink him – it saved him. Bryan Cranston is a fine actor whose career won’t be waylaid by a few dull choices. But it would be encouraging to see the goodwill he built up from Breaking Bad (or from being great in poor movies such as Argo) being parlayed into movies that took chances or played with the form in some way, as shows like 30 Rock and Breaking Bad have been able to do.

Dalton Trumbo was a firecracker of a writer; it’s a shame that the movie that now bears his name lacks any of the sizzle he brought to the screen.

Trumbo is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.