Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is the story of twentieth century China and Mao’s Cultural Revolution as refracted through the lives of three generations of women (the author, her mother, her grandmother). It is one of the most extraordinary books of our time.
Twenty years on it seems no less extraordinary, especially in the light of the current story of political corruption and brutality surrounding the death of an English businessman. Chang’s book, an essay in cumulative disenchantment, poses a fascinating conundrum: nine hundred million Chinamen can’t be right, can they?
This brilliant stage adaptation by Alexandra Wood and directed by Sacha Wares is a co-production of the Young Vic, the American Repertory Theatre in Boston and the Actors Touring Company. It conveys the essence of a 500-page tome in under ninety minutes and proves a wonderful way of launching World Stages London, a festival of shows across a variety of venues drawing on the experiences of London’s cross-cutting cultural communities.
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 with puppet plays, beautiful projections of vast paddy fields, bustling city scenes, an earthen field that is swept clear as the rattan surround is simultaneously rolled up, and we find grandmother (Julyana Soelistyo) in an all-white hospital ward bucking the system by serving home-made soup to her own doctor.
This whiteness in turn is white-washed with peasant posters for a scene in which old allegiances are said to undermine loyalty to the party and the new directives. Chang’s mother (Ka-Ling Cheung) is “denounced” by her own husband in order to prove that she doesn’t need his protection. She is compelled to “kow-tow” and kneel on broken glass. Talk about crunch time…
The play cannot rival the book’s sense of the desolate arc drawn between friends and families, their displacement to farms and factories, the terrors of genocide or the imprisonment and torturing of millions (including Chang’s own father, a party official).
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. The scene of fanatical Red Guards, led by Celeste Den’s fearsome Ting, burning books and dissolving family ties in the name of the people, summarises everything that is philistine and totalitarian in modern China, even as it emerges as a world economic power.
Chang, or Er-Hong (Katie Leung), makes a stand. She becomes a literature student only through her mother pulling strings, a final irony in the nation’s weird progress towards “liberation.” It all amounts to the best kind of didactic theatre, impassioned and the complete opposite of boring. And the design is truly amazing.