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.
Orion Lee as Shou-Yu in Wild Swans. Photo by Chris Nash
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.