Wild Swans - theatre review

Posted on: 27 April 2012 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews Jung Chang's epic tale of life in China throughout Moa's 'Cultural Revolution' as the show sells out its short run at the Young Vic, London.

Wild SwansOne family’s struggle for survival against the political upheavals of Marxist China provides the theme of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, adapted for the stage by Alexandra Wood from the worldwide best seller and condensed into a gripping 90-minute play, directed by Sacha Wares, at the Young Vic Theatre. It marks the launch of World Stages London and the Young Vic production is co-presented with the American Repertory Theatre and the Actors Touring Company.

The story is set between 1948 and 1978, spanning three generations but the main focus is on the author’s (Jung Chang’s) parents, De-Hong and Shou-Yu. We first encounter them working the ?  and the father then seeks the Communist Party’s permission for their marriage. The political loyalty of both parents is soon put to the test. De-Hong is punished partly because her mother once a warlord’s concubine was a member of the privileged class. Shou-Yu, meanwhile is detained and exiled to a labour camp for refusing to kow-tow to the Party and admit his “treachery” for speaking out about a state-inflicted famine, in which the money which should have gone to the peasants went towards the purchase of nuclear weapons.

Chang herself manages to survive the family’s ordeals and in 1978 as a dedicated English student, is allowed to leave China for Britain.

Visually breathtaking with the long stage providing a realistic, almost cinematic, evocation of the period from the chaotic bustle of a teeming old market, summoning ua the myriad sights, sounds and smells, then moving swiftly across thirty history-defining years of the 20th century, the show never lets the atmosphere and settings-banner-waving red Guards, Labour camps, steam-belching factories and crowded cityscapes of the late Mao years – diminish the human focus of the story, in particular the agonising choices faced by the family at its centre during the mass hysteria of the Cultural Revolution.

Admittedly in adapting the novel for the stage certain things are lost – the harsh life of Chang’s grandmother as a concubine has been reduced to a brief puppet sequence, but the characters are nevertheless well drawn and the production gains considerable momentum and power as it goes along.

Director Sacha Wares draws naturalistic, heartfelt performances from Orion Lee as the author’s father, Shou-Yu, Ka-Ling Cheung as her mother, De-Hong, Julyana Soelistyo as her grandmother, Yu-Fang, and Harry Potter star Katie Leung as the author herself, supported by a large, impressive ensemble.

I short, then, this first stage production of Jung Chang’s bestseller – which has sold 13 million copies in 36 languages – works extremely well and the result is a moving and thought-provoking evening in the theatre.

Runs until May 13         Box office: 020 7922 2923 

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