Theatre review: Wild Swans at the Young Vic

11:15 23 April 2012

Wild Swans at the Young Vic. Photo by Chris Nash

Wild Swans at the Young Vic. Photo by Chris Nash


Imaginative staging cannot overcome an over abridged production of Wild Swans at the Young Vic

The fall of imperial China and the rise and tyrannous fall of the new red dawn of communism are depicted in an astonishingly short hour and 15 minutes in the Young Vic’s production of Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans.

A family history spanning a century is whittled down to a snapshot allegory of man’s inability to change the corrupt cycle of history.

Our heroine Wild Swan (Ka-Ling Cheung) is the heart of the revolution while her husband Shou-Yu (Orion Lee) is its intellectual voice.

We follow the couple as, strong as an ox, they experience the redemptive power of physical labour during the communist revolution and later the horror of the Great Leap Forward, as thousands of tonnes of grain feed Mao’s ambitions while the peasants of China starve.

It’s a stark sorry story.

Mao sacrifices the one commodity China has – people - to produce the grain traded with Russia for the atomic bomb.

China is great, but the great ideals of communism are forever corrupted and one man, unable to compromise his ideals, brings about the ruin of his family.

The brevity of staging gives the message clarity at the cost of complexity, not helped by the actors Americanised Chinese accents, unnecessary Disney to the British ear.

We never truly connect with the family, so their story has little emotion.

But the staging is unusual, and set changes lasting minutes see the cast literally build the backdrops, sweeping away a paddy field of soil or mopping water onto magic white boards to reveal murals beneath - their own hard work for the cause.

* Showing at the Young Vic in The Cut, SE1, until May 13.

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