How can you take 30 years of turbulent history, three generations of a family, a 700-page book, and stage it in 90 minutes? An incredible, morphing Miriam Buether-designed set is certainly a good start.
Jung Chang’s biographical book Wild Swans has been read by 87% of the world’s population and 5% of the known universe. Okay, those statistics might not be entirely accurate, but if you haven’t read the tale of 20th century China, you know someone who has. Its success as a non-fiction publication is very nearly Biblical, literally.
Buether’s set, like the story, moves from a bustling market place of 1948 to a bustling marketplace of 1978, through farmland, paddy fields and homes. Its post box design hides secrets more efficiently than a corrupt government official and each scene change is like a work of art or mini-play in itself.
To say too much more would risk stealing the growing sense of wonder I enjoyed from future audiences, but I will say that just when you think the set has nothing left to give, it reveals something new.
Coming to Wild Swans as one of the few warm-blooded mammals of earth to have not read the book – though it is sitting on a shelf, waiting patiently – I have no idea how much has been cut or how infuriating purists might find this. I imagine ‘a lot’ is the answer to both.
Most of the stage tale focuses on De-Hong – the middle generation of three – and her turbulent life during the rise of Communism, as she moves from the most committed of party members to discovering the reality of the situation, and the ongoing battle between her principles and her life and family. The back story of her mother is cleverly, and swiftly, told through a propaganda puppet story, while the trials of her daughter’s are most effective at shedding light on her own story.
In fact, it might even be possible to argue that on stage Wild Swans becomes less about three women and more about one man, De Hong’s husband, Shou-Yu, whose staunch commitment to his Communist beliefs and ideals, rather than the party itself, are the catalyst for destruction, both in his life and that of his family. The scenes in which actor Orion Lee struggles with this persistent problem are the most compelling of the whole piece.
Wild Swans is the first production of World Stages London, a capital-wide season of shows bringing eight London theatres together with 12 UK and international companies to tell global stories. It is a season both epic and ambitious, like Wild Swans. While this opening production at the Young Vic may not be perfect, its moments of gut-wrenching, Sophie’s Choice-esque decision making have lodged in my heart, and I would watch it again in a flash just for the treat of Buether’s transforming set.