Review: Wild Swans, Young Vic
Wild Swans, the opening production of World Stages London, is a bit of a lame duck. Jung Chang’s memoir takes 700 odd pages to span three generations of a Chinese family over the course of a century. Alexandra Wood’s adaptation lasts just 85 minutes and covers only 30 years. There’s a joke about that duck being crisp and shredded as well, but I’m damned if I going to commit to it fully.
I’ve not read the original, but it surprises me that a story generally defined as that of three women has been transformed into one about a single man. Wood makes Shou-Yu (Orion Lee) the protagonist and focuses on his absolutely uncompromising resistance in the face of Chairman Mao’s communist regime.
That’s not to say that Wood has lost the moral ambiguity of Shou-Yu’s conscientious objection. He and his wife De-Hong (Ka-Ling Cheung) are active members of the communist party, often to their own detriment. They follow Mao’s leadership until it’s directives contort and betray the party’s own basic principles, causing a vast famine. Shou-Yu stands up to the regime and, for the rest of his life, refuses to back down. Not only does it cost him his freedom, it costs De-Hong’s as well – and, in time, the black mark sticks to their daughter Er-Hong (Katie Leung). Shou-Yu remains resolute and his family are repeatedly impacted.
In these terms, the dramaturgical skeleton is very strong, but Wood has not written a theatrical adaptation so much as a staged précis. Her script has all the fat of Jack Spratt’s supper and Chang’s account is reduced to its bare bones. We see the steel supports, but not the building itself. Accordingly dialogue is strained beyond credibility: “Don’t you know there’s a new directive?” sort of thing. Almost everything is illustrative or demonstrative, and as such, only convinces when the narrative portrays some ritual or other.
Any narrative art is a matter of handling symbols, whether they be words or images or something else. The component parts of a story resonate beneath the story itself and carry the meaning. In good narrative art, these will be significant and, crucially, unobtrusive. They must exist beneath the surface without puncturing it.
Different forms require different methods. A novel can disguise a significant detail amongst a mass of others. Theatre cannot, especially when in such a reduced form as this. Its significant symbols must be thoroughly knitted into the main narrative; they cannot be inessential. Wood falls foul of the trap time and again. Give a copy of A Doll’s House as a wedding present in a novel, for example, and it can be a fleeting reference, gently glanced. Do so on stage and it lands with a thudding clunk, screaming ‘CHECK OUT THE SYMBOLISM, GUYS,’ as it does.
However, Wood’s approach can still work onstage, but it needs a completely different mode than the one director Sacha Wares attempts.
Wood could have committed to a four hour adaptation, fully fleshing out every stage of the original, scene by scene, in a manner that corresponds to the way people speak and act. She hasn’t. She has written a playtext that knows it’s a playtext; her adaptation is a piece of storytelling – even if it doesn’t directly acknowledge itself as such. Essentially, it is a purely Brechtian tale, told starkly and at one remove. To play it as naturalistically as possible, as Wares does, is frankly embarrassing. It makes the actors look terrible, through no fault of their own, as they desperately try to instil life in two-dimensional stiffs, and it makes the writing looking atrocious. What this needs is a definite sense of stage and a company of actors working together to tell a story for an audience. Wares tries to give us the story alone.
Ironically, it is Miriam Buether’s design – the single element that really makes an impact – that must harbour a good deal of the blame. Buether’s stage is a cinematic strip; a shallow panorama that, as China springs up into its modern high-rise form, gains depth and complexity and changes from straw and mud to metal and mirrors and projection. It carries the course of history at the heart of the play effortlessly, but completely upends the playing of it.
Buether opts to set each scene in its intended location. We get strips of farms, hospitals and labour camps. We know each is a theatrical construction, because we’ve seen the cast frantically working to change the scene – sometimes for as long as five minutes – but we are still, ultimately, asked to see the setting rather than the stage. However, the text as it is, can only exist on stage, not on location. It’s no coincidence that Wild Swans is best when wordless or during its scene-changes and set-pieces. The move is from gross pretence (the farming acting is particularly cringeworthy) to some level of reality.
As it is everything – text, direction, acting, design – is pulling in different directions. No production can afford to do that, least of all one that sets its stall by the Marxist ideal.
Photograph: Chris Nash