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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder