GT Stage

Wild Swans

at the Young Vic

Long renowned for its fresh, hip and daring productions, the Young Vic pushes the envelope it invented with its latest outing, a stunning adaptation of the Jung Chang’s iconic memoir Wild Swans. Teaming up with the American Repertory Theatre and the Actors Touring Company, it's surprising to note this is only the first stage version of the 21-year-old, 13 million-selling text, which recounts the lives of three generations of Chinese women – Jung, her mother and her grandmother – and the harrowing challenges they face from 1948 to 1978 against a backdrop of great political unrest.

Under Sacha Wares’s direction, decades' worth of story is condensed into 90 action-packed minutes; brave, but one expects a rushed and rambling disaster. Not a bit of it. The production is graceful and effortless, the script tight and efficient, the acting focused and powerful and the stagecraft unforgettable. A cast of 30 must meander on a long, narrow rectangle of stage for the bulk of the play; what with the theatre being modestly-sized to begin with you feel physically closer to the cast for it, more immersed in the story. With so little space for the actors and their characters to share you feel their sense of panic and urgency and sometimes excitement as the Maoist regime pervades their lives, ultimately threatening destruction and hanging over them like a dark cloud, or, as in one typically visual scene, in the form of powerful, colourful propaganda.

The bulk of the text is glossed over, but this is somewhat inevitable; had it been eked out to more than an hour and a half it would've been simply too emotionally demanding. A brief introduction details the early life of Jung’s grandmother (once the teenage concubine of a warlord) throug the art of puppetry; both beautiful and beautifully executed. Through the later stages of her life Jung's grandmother is played to pithy and often-comic perfection by Julyana Soelistyo, whose twist on the archetypal meddling mother/critical mother-in-law gives the production a much-needed shot of characterisation among a myriad of faces and faceless characters. Her love for her daughter and granddaughter is touching and her wariness of her son-in-law telling.

Elsewhere and for the most part it is the journey of Jung’s parents De-hong and Shou-yu we share; of their rocky relationship with and the devastating consequences of their slowly dwindling loyalty to a Communist party that dictates the arc of their lives. We end with the story of Jung, whose escape from her difficult past to pursue an education in England makes for a pleasingly optimistic climax. Again, it's brief, but makes a lasting impact; an impact heightened by Beijing video artist Wang GongXin’s stirring projections of a bustling Chinese cityscape that seems to grow and evolve into a superpower before your very eyes.


Young Vic,

Photo: Chris Nash

Words: Jamie Tabberer

For tickets, visit the Young Vic website

More from GT Stage