Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Wild Swans

I read Wild Swans when it first came out in the early 90s.  Thinking back, it was probably my first real encounter with modern China: a history and a culture that have become so important to my work and my life.  Since that time, we've done a lot of work around the contemporary Chinese experience and its relationship to the West.  I've met people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and the famine, people whose lives have been scarred by the horrors of the Chinese century.  And empowered by its energies and even its idealism.  So the stage adaptation of this seminal memoir, at the Young Vic, is an important piece of theatre for me. 

The book is huge and epic - and I had rather expected to sit down for a long evening somewhere between Wagner and Lepage, or perhaps more like a Shared Experience Tolstoy adaptation.  Not a bit of it.  The play is about 80 minutes long - and a sizeable chunk of that time is taken up with spectacular set-changes (which have their own power in terms of suggesting a nation very much at work, and a gradual revealing of history as one image is stripped away or exploded to reveal the next).  This means that the family saga with its complex political background is turned into something more like a parable around honesty and complicity in a corrupt society.  It's rather "Brechtian", in a way (the Brecht of the parables, not the historical epics), with a simplified acting style to match.

But Chinese history is not simple.  And neither were the moral and political questions faced by Jung Chang and her family - especially her passionately idealistic father, who was himself criticised in the Cultural Revolution and ended up in a labour camp, still hanging on to his faith in a benevolent Party.  The play is reductive in many ways - it is trying to make a very complex society and the experiences of people caught up in an especially turbulent period of its history seem "accessible", and in the process it shifts into a simplistic moralism.  The father's former girlfriend becomes a melodramatic villain: people did make use of criticism sessions for personal vendettas, but the cultural climate was ultimately more important than the private vengeance operating through it.  The unseen Mao gets the blame for an awful lot - and there's truth in this - but the implication that things suddenly got better after his death is naive, and the idea that a "modern" market-driven society is somehow inherently better than idealism gone awry is questionable in the extreme.

I should say that there is much about this production which is very strong - visually it is stunning.  But, because of the status it has been afforded in the World Stages season and the whole Olympic thing, it has a greater responsibility to its subjects in terms of cultural exchange, historical honesty, mutual respect and acknowledgment of complex truths.  Because of this status, it's getting glowing press like the Dominic Cavendish's review in the Telegraph which suggests that "it belatedly brings that vast country – and fast-emerging superpower – into our parochial modern theatrical arena."  Well, actually, no - Dominic.  Border Crossings produced Dis-Orientations; in 2006, and Re-Orientations in 2010.  Both of these were collaborations with artists from mainland China, which drew off their own direct experience of their history and their present.  And now we're working on Consumed, which will bring our journey right up to the present moment, while continuing to acknowledge the importance of the past.  Some of us haven't been parochial for a long time.  In fact, as long ago as the late 90s, I was working with Peter Sellars on Nixon in China at the ENO.  Alice Goodman's text really explored the many layers of the Cultural Revolution, and permitted no pat moralistic responses. 

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