'Wild Swans' is based on the mega-selling book “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” by Jung Chang, which documents the life stories of her mother and grandmother as well as her own. Apparently, 10 million or so copies have been sold worldwide, even though it is banned in China, the country which provides the backdrop for the action. The play is the launch production of a season of shows entitled 'World Stages London' which runs until June.
Set in China, the action begins even before the curtain rises as the large cast conjure-up a busy chinese market teeming with soldiers, beggars, card-sharps and sundry street vendors. The action here and for most of the play takes place on a narrow strip at the front of the stage separated from the rest of the acting area by large white screens. This looks a little odd even if it does not seem to restrict the action too much.
The story focuses on De-Hong, her mother Yu-Fang, and De-Hong's husband Shou-Yu. At the start, De-Hong is already involved with politics and wants to avoid an arranged marriage. Later, she meets Shou-Yu while working in the fields with the peasants and they get married. The couple are loyal communist supporters but fall foul of a jealous official who uses party dictates against De-Hong and her husband has to denounce her. Later, Shou-Yu falls victim to the vagaries of the political system and ends up working in the paddy fields as punishment. However, come the move to industrialisation in China and the opportunity to make money, the family are reunited, though Shou-Yu, a man of principle, still refuses to pander to officials in order to get a scholarship for his daughter.
With a play that lasts only 90 minutes, you would think that every moment of stage time would be especially precious for the purposes of telling the story and developing the characters. But about 15 minutes of the total running time is taken up with tedious scene changes. First, when the show starts, the stage is covered with earth – or some kind of earth substitute – which has to be laboriously raked and scraped off to make way for the next scene which takes place in a hospital. No wonder the cast is so large! A little later, the white panels of the hospital walls have to be soaked with water to get rid of the paint to allow a large mural to show through. After that, a paddy field has to be constructed, complete with real water and enormous projections which actually proves impressive. Finally, paving stones have to be carted on stage to provide the location for the modern industrial China. Now all of those scene changes might have been essential, but could have been achieved in a different way to eliminate the tedious and repetitive delays.
The script is surprisingly dull given the political complexities of the situations and the nightmarish existence which the characters had to live through. On top of that, the acting is patchy and a little raw around the edges, though there are one or two commendable efforts from some the minor characters. The cast work hard, but need more authoritative and attentive direction to really convince. All those factors contribute to a rather disappointing evening, and especially because of the coma-inducing scene changes.
"I was bowled over by Sacha Wares's production...And what impresses is how much of Maoist China has been crammed into a single evening."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"What I long to do now is return to the book to fill in the many gaps."
Fiona Mountford for the Evening Standard
"Enormously refreshing - Superb."
Dominic Cavendish for the Daily Telegraph