By Hemanth Kissoon
“One act of courage encourages another.”
WILD SWANS the book is 21 years old. It’s hard to believe. I read it when I was at school, ahem, some years ago. It made an impression on me, but the details have faded. I was wondering how a theatrical adaptation was going to capture three generations of women in China, especially as the run-time is only 85 minutes. The pace, as you can imagine, is brisk. The production has even begun before we take our seats: a bustling market in the aftermath of the Second World War. The stage is so wide we have to swing our heads to take it all in. The Young Vic theatre is rammed, and we are jammed into our seats. It can’t be for ticket sales; this has got to be for creating a certain claustrophobia, empathy with the discomfort of our neighbours.
Even though it is three generations: Yu-Fang (Julyana Soelistyo), her daughter De-Hong (Ka-Ling Cheung), and her granddaughter Er-Hong (Katie Leung), spanning thirty years, the focus is on De-Hong and what she suffers under Mao’s regime. The play’s strength, apart from the stunning set-design, but more on that, is the portraying of petty bureaucracy, hypocrisy and corruption. Every scene contains a frustrated anger. If the characters spent the whole play screaming, I would understand. And back to the scenery. You will be mesmerised by the transitions that happen before our eyes, no curtain drop, the actors transform the stage on a regular basis. I don’t want to ruin it, all I’ll say is, wow!
However, the acting is of varying quality. Not to sound harsh, but the kids are awful. Luckily they have relatively little input. The stand out performance is Shou-Yu (Orion Lee), who draws you in, because he seems to be the only one actively attempting to alter what is thrown at him. Maybe the piece should’ve been called ‘Wild Drake’, Shou-Yu’s part is so pivotal. And that is the big criticism, the Wild Swans feel like cyphers and historical punchbags, rather than fully drawn. Playwright Alexandra Wood’s job was far from easy, but why limit the length if condensation was so difficult? An excellent example of grand family travails is AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTRY, which ran at three hours 20 minutes (including two intervals). Also, the puppetry, used for flashbacks, is cringeworthy. Pardon the pun, but it is very wooden. So little is conveyed that narration is needed. In the age of HIS DARK MATERIALS and WAR HORSE, the bar has been set. If you’re nowhere near that level perhaps reconsider employing the technique?
WILD SWANS is part of the World Stages London, an intriguing team-up up of eight London theatres, looking at different cultures that make up the Big Smoke’s population. The Young Vic kicks things off, and WILD SWANS is worth attending for dramaturgy-buffs desiring a masterclass in production design. Miriam Buether take a bow!