Wild Swans

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Director Sacha Wares

Young Vic, London, until 13 May

As I took my seat at the Young Vic, the narrow stage was crowded and noisy showing a 1930s Chinese street with cigarette sellers, beggars, cooked food, shoppers, bullying soldiers and a querulous fine lady carried in a sedan chair. The audience added to the vibrant noise. In 80 minutes this adaptation of Jung Chang's biography of her grandmother, her mother and her own childhood winds through China's turbulent 20th century, ending with her escape and the destruction of all that her parents tried to achieve.

The speed of the production matches the speed of change in society. Grandmother Yu-Fang's feet were bound as a career opportunity, forced into the three-inch "golden lotus" ideal by which a beautiful child could become a concubine to a rich man.

But her 15 year old daughter De-Hong avoids a profitable match and runs away to join the Communist underground. There she meets Shou-Yu, a sincere official with a love of poetry. Like a troupe of strolling players they use puppetry and percussion to explain their history and explain why the Communists have come, but to be taken seriously they must work alongside the peasants.

The set-changes are woven into the story. After ploughing a field the peasants clear the earth from the stage, hospital workers sweep behind them and construct a ward while wheeling in patients. Even the paddy field scene has the actors paddling in real water.

Costumes are peeled off in layers and the script is pared down. But it does try to do justice to the tragedy of committed Chinese Communists. They are trapped by bureaucratisation and estrangement from any ideas to do with the self emancipation and self-activity of workers and peasants.

Jung Chang's father Shou-Yu could be powerful but he cannot believe ill of the party.
It is his fatal weakness: even the interrogation of his wife, he believes, must be part of a sincere attempt to root out enemies. But nor can he lie about the "Great Leap Forward". Mao's drive to make China a superpower using Russian technology was paid for by huge grain exports which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 million peasants in the late 1950s.

The ensuing power struggle, including the so-called "Cultural Revolution", saw the systematic organisation of thugs who terrorised people in the cities. Shou-Yu cannot deny the famine or bear Mao's treachery. Only his seniority prevents his execution - but true to his beliefs he does not pull strings to save himself and the rest of the family are implicated by their connection with him. Yet through her mother's tenacity and her father's kindness, Jung eventually escapes China.

This production is part of World Stages London, an international theatre initiative to celebrate London's diversity. It is also a great way to introduce 20th century Chinese history to young people.