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A CurtainUp London London Review
Wild Swans

We’ve all known fear. — De-Hong
Wild Swans
Jung Chang’s best selling biography Wild Swans receives its first staging as part of the Olympic celebrations in London, World Stages is a collaboration between eight London theatres and twelve UK and international co-producers. The Young Vic co-produces the play with the American Repertory Theater and the Actors Touring Company. But how to stage this wide encompassing novel over three decades from 1948 to 1978 into something that isn’t 50 hours long?

What Alexandra Wood’s adaptation does is to concentrate on telling the story of Jung Chang’s parents, her father Shou-Yu (Orion Lee) and her mother De-Hong (Ka-ling Cheung) as they live through the Cultural Revolution under the regime overseen by Chairman Mao. They are both committed to the ideals of the revolution but fall foul of the unrealistic agricultural targets and when Shou-Yu writes in protest to Mao and he is sent away to a prison labour camp where he works in the paddy fields planting rice.

It is apparent that Jung Chang comes from a determined line of women as we touch on the story of her grandmother Yu-Fang (Julyana Soelistyo) a second wife of an Imperial Warlord. Her feet were bound to ensure she walked in dainty and tiny steps but which breaks the bones in the feet and cripples women later in life. She gave birth to her daughter and when another wife took her baby, she stole her back and fled.

Sacha Wares’ production, told using traditional puppetry, immerses us in China from before the start with a lively and colourful, pre-revolutionary Chinese market place peopled authentically as a cast added to by community chorus members, barter and argue noisily. This gives way to a scene in the fields and later as the earth is swept up to music, the bamboo taken down from the walls, the hospital beds are wheeled in where De-Hong is ill. As the hospital scene gives way to the revolution, the white walls are soaked with water from mops to reveal propaganda posters celebrating the revolution in China giving way to hopes of a fairer society. We see De-Hong meeting fellow revolutionary Shou-Yu and making an enemy of political activist Ting (Celeste Den) his former girlfriend.

As Shou-Yu is sent thousands of miles away, the stage is flooded to make way for the rice fields with projected video of workers in the distance, until finally back in the city paving slabs are placed over the stage and cyclists ride through the bustle of the traffic, the projected factories and city streets. Miriam Buether’s staging is the most spectacular I have seen on the London stage for as long as I can remember and greatly adds to the atmosphere of this incredible production. But we never lose touch with the human story. I shall remember for ever De-Hong being made to kneel on broken glass while faceless protestors hide behind placards with words on one side and pictures of Mao on the other which they carry or of Er-Hong’s brave visit to her father in the labour camp when she doesn’t see him because he will not compromise his principals. Later when Er-Hong (Katie Leung) needs a favour to help her take up a scholarship in the West he refuses to use his influence because he believes influence is wrong.

There is a very short time in which to see this spectacular staging of Wild Swans. Don’t miss it!

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Wild Swans
Written by Jung Chang
Adapted by Alexandra Wood
Directed by Sacha Wares

Starring: Julyana Soelistyo, Ka-Ling Cheung, Celeste Den, Orion Lee, Sienna Mayer/Isabelle Wang, Katie Leung
With: Joanna Zenghui Qiu, Jennifer Lim, Ls JN Mau, Victor Chi, Jon Kit Lee, Joanne Fong, Eric Chan, Ron Nakahara, Annie Chang, Jay Heyman, Peter Stevens, Oliver Biles,
Set Designed by Mirian Buether
Costumes: Tom Rand
Lighting: DM Wood
Sound: Gareth Fry
Projection design: Tim Reid
Choreography: Leon Baugh
Puppet Design: Michael Fowkes
Music Direction: Joanna Zenghui Qiu
Running time: One hour 30 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 13 May 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th April 2012 performance at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut London SE1 8LZ (Tube: Waterloo or Southwark)

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