Faced with “Wild Swans,” Jung Chang’s 676-page bestseller about three generations of women in 20th century China, playwright Alexandra Wood and director Sacha Wares make the boldest of choices. Instead of sticking doggedly to the text, they aim for the book’s spirit while bringing their epic staging in at just 85 minutes. The result, however, is extraordinarily uneven. The stagecraft engendered by Miriam Buether’s audacious design is stunning; the uninflected acting and its intended emotional payoffs, considerably less so.
Unexpectedly, the dramatization’s focus is not the author, here named Er-Hong and played by Katie Leung (best known as Harry Potter’s girlfriend). Wood and Wares have instead focused on her mother De-Hong (Ka-Ling Cheung,) the idealistic communist who, swept up with the originating hope of the new regime, marries earnest Shou-Yu (Orion Lee) and sets about playing their part in changing their world.
Wood’s adaptation proceeds to use their marriage of more than two decades as a paradigm, a model of the tensions of the Chinese people who suffered the cost of political change.
The script is at its best showing Shou-Yu’s zeal and purity of purpose, which is as naive as it is unstinting. His absolute belief in the rightness of the party blinds him to the corruption engulfing Mao’s regime — with devastating consequences for the people. Scales are partially lifted from his eyes by his witnessing of the great famine, but his idealistic failure to countenance the idea that the political machine might be self-serving wrecks both his career and the lives of those closest to him.
That is made impressively clear in the section where disgraced, prematurely aging Shou-Yu is bent double in a rice field, the stage suddenly flooding with water against Wang Gongxin’s video vista of a rice field that stretches back miles. His daughter tries to bribe the guards to let him see her, but his staunch refusal to compromise keeps them apart across Buether’s immensely wide stage.
The imaginative, genre-breaking design pulls off one visual coup after another, as in the surprise breaking down of the back wall revealing the hubbub of a post-Mao city teeming with extras. In a neat thematic link, the transitions between scenes are filled with laborious activity by the actors exemplifying the regime’s reliance upon the work ethic.
Chang’s book engages via characters torn by the dilemma facing China, but the schematic script and largely one-dimensional characterization rarely rises above the display of a position and its surrounding arguments. When De-Hong is sent away and then doesn’t see her daughter for years, their reunion should have hugely emotional impact. Here, she merely leaves at the end of one scene and promptly returns in the next.
The theatrical intent of the production, so transfixingly encapsulated by the transitions, is everywhere apparent. But the fact that these non-speaking sequences are more eloquent than the scenes is an indictment. This would-be narrative-based production winds up feeling more like a costly, if impressive, installation.