Review Round-up: Wild Swans soar at Young VicDate: 30 April 2012
Based on Jung Chang’s best-selling book, Wild Swans explores 20th century China through the eyes of one courageous family.
Adapted for the stage by Alexandra Wood and directed by Sacha Wares, the production explores the early days of Communist hope and struggle, through the chaos and confusion of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to the birth of a superpower.
Wild Swans plays at the Young Vic until the 13 May 2012.
“This brilliant stage adaptation … conveys the essence of a 500-page tome in under 90 minutes and proves a wonderful way of launching World Stages London… The full width and narrow depth of a stage that designer Miriam Buether has previously exploited in Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan are ideal for an ironic Communist pageant, a revolutionary poster play with red flags, little red books, choreographed peasants and a teeming nation on the move. Chang’s chronology is followed but condensed and to fine dramatic effect… The play cannot rival the book’s sense of the desolate arc drawn between friends and families … but in its close detail and theatrical sweep – there are dozens of people on the stage – it creates a real world of automaton-like regimentation… It all amounts to the best kind of didactic theatre, impassioned and the complete opposite of boring. And the design is truly amazing.”
“Jung Chang's doorstop epic … is unstageable in its entirety. But Alexandra Wood's 90-minute adaptation, vividly directed by Sacha Wares, captures its indomitable personal spirit … Buether's stunningly articulate design is worth a million words … Katie Leung, previously known for being Harry's first snog in the Potter movies, is sensitive and intense as the teenage author. But it's her mother who emerges as the true heroine here: Ka-Ling Cheung plays her with vehemence, grace and understanding. Ultimately, it's the setting that's unforgettable. Jubilant national music, exultant pageants of portrait-waving Maoists, or resigned dirt-sweepers change the scenes, emphasising the human scale of China's revolution - and visibly dissolving the individuals in a many-handed display which is as thrilling as the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - but far more critical of totalitarian values.”
"Much obviously is left out. But Wares's production, through the genius of Miriam Buether's design, pinpoints the unfolding story of Mao's regime. It is as if the stage, scene by scene, is gradually opening up to reveal the historical narrative. Thus the evening begins with an evocation of the chaotic bustle of pre-People's Republic China seething with water vendors, wildfowl, booksellers and bargaining. A hessian backdrop is then stripped away to usher us into a world of propagandist poster art, rural rituals and banner-waving Red Guards. That too gives way, thanks to the stunning video work of Wang Gongxin, to a vision of the watery labour camps, steam-belching factories and crowded cityscapes of China in the late Mao years... Orion Lee as the author's father, Ka-Ling Cheung as the mother and Julyana Soelistyo as the grandmother delineate their characters with swift economy. And what impresses is how much of Maoist China has been crammed into a single evening. On the way home, I was reading a magazine article about modern China and how it was rapidly overtaking the US not just economically but also in terms of education and civic infrastructure. It is salutary to be reminded through Wild Swans of the human cost of China's progress to global superpower."
“I have just seen the best stage design of the year … Miriam Buether's vision of Wild Swans does exactly what superlative design can do: render not only the look of a place but the rhythm of a play ... Much condensed for the stage, the narrative is altogether broader and more approximate, as if totalitarian flattening of language, the attenuation of the private individuality were infectious. When the personal and political fuse, in the manner of Chang's book, Sacha Wares’staging … ignites… Still, the indelible impressions are visual: the bamboo and bicycles of the opening scene, where the warlord appears as a blue-faced puppet; the rosy faces and pigtails of revolutionary banners; the large watery wastes of the paddy fields where Jung Chang is forbidden to speak to her father, denounced by the regime, which stretch on video into the infinite distance as the sun slowly sets.”
“I can’t tell you how enormously refreshing – and vitally important – this evening is… Alexandra Wood’s adaptation … acts as a fantastic cultural-historical primer without short-changing us of dramatic emotion… Beginning with a teeming old market and ending with a soulless modern cityscape, these are beautifully rendered along a narrow strip of stage by designer Miriam Buether – with evocative support from Beijing video artist Wang Gongxin. Yet each vista is replaced, with ruthless efficiency, before our eyes by the populous ensemble (rising to 30 on stage at times), once it has served its function. These coups de theatre are like 'great leaps forward' of the upheavals experienced by Chang’s compatriots, especially under Chairman Mao… The show … summons myriad sights, sounds and even smells while racing us across the tumult of the 20th century… Superb.”
“Jung Chang’s epoch-defining Wild Swans … is 645 pages long. Alexandra Wood’s stage adaptation runs at just under 90 minutes straight through. That’s simply not enough book for your buck, even if Woods and director Sacha Wares have hit upon a stylish scheme of impressionistically capturing key scenes from Chang’s epic text … What the play desperately requires is a second half of equal length, to flesh everything out and to allow Harry Potter actress Katie Leung … more than a couple of brief scenes of whining. In light of these time strictures, it seems especially perverse to spend so many wordless minutes on the scene changes … Miriam Buether’s designs niftily recount China’s rapid technological hurtle down the years. Yet during the time it takes the large ‘community chorus’ of extras to sweep the widened-out stage clear of soil we could have accomplished at least a Medium-Sized Leap Forward … There’s some worryingly flat acting, but Wares certainly has a well-trained eye for striking visuals … Nonetheless, what I long to do now is return to the book to fill in the many gaps.”