Wild Swans, famously banned in China for its honest look back at some of the country's most turbulent years, has now been adapted for the stage, and the result is pretty but vague. Running far too short, it skips over the surface of the epic story spanning three generations without delving too deeply. Although it is rather impressively staged, with elaborate scene-changes and movement pieces, is that really enough?
Wild Swans covers a huge swathe of Chinese history, but this adaptation starts just after World War 2 – De-Hong is to be married off to an army officer, but instead falls in love with Shou-Yu, an ambitious and contentious Communist Party member. But when Shou-Yu criticises Chairman Mao after the Great Famine, he damns himself, De-Hong, De-Hong's mother Yu-Fang and their young daughter Er-Hong to a life of oppression and mistreatment, until Er-Hong manages to escape.
It's surprising how so meaty and interesting a novel can have translated to the stage in such a shallow way – Wild Swans spans 100 years of Chinese history, but the play has chosen one of the three character arcs within and only alludes to the rest, reducing Yu-Fang's story to a puppet show and stopping Er-Hong's before it's even truly started. It might make sense if the story we're left with, De-Hong's, had been fully fleshed out, but there's so much left unsaid. The trouble with memoirs is that life doesn't follow a successful story arc – a problem the book avoids by combining three stories and drawing comparisons across them, but here leads to a a single, not-very-tangled through-line; the result is light on plot and emotional involvement. This is all the more peculiar when you consider that the show only runs for 80 mins.
It's a quiet relief then that the show itself is nothing short of impressive. We transition from marketplace to hospital to rice paddy to city with incredible ease, with the huge cast of extras shifting tons of earth, washing the walls to reveal Maoist propaganda posters and taking part in an elaborate dance while water seeps through the floor. Each scene change is a wonderful display of manpower, perfectly embodying the huge population and their graft and work that drags China from one age to the next, but all the while represented by simple chores. As a concept and design, it's well thought out, striking, and a huge credit to Sacha Wares (director) and Miriam Buether (set designer).
But is it enough? Sadly, it isn't really – there just isn't enough to sink your teeth into. There's only one scene with any dramatic tension (Shou-Yu's denunciation by the Red Guard), but the rest flows by rather than striking with anything more profound than an appreciation of the beauty of the stagecraft. It's understandable that a memoir won't necessarily translate well into a form where plot and story carry more weight, but the decision here to jettison most of it in favour of a visual representation of China's development from a country of farmers into a country of businessmen is a gamble that hasn't paid off.
However, there's a lot here to like: it is beautiful, undeniably so, and the simple yet evocative staging and strong design concept will be inspiring a lot of young creatives. The performances are strong when they aren't being overshadowed, although it's a shame that all four leads are reduced to standing around looking upset half of the time. It's also inspiring to see such a production in London – it's very different fare to what you'd normally see on a London stage, and Chinese history isn't something you see on many school syllabuses. There is clearly a desire here to educate as well as entertain, but this may be where the story floundered.
As the first in World Stages London's exciting new season, Wild Swans will certainly get people talking – and it may not be the most riveting piece of theatre, but it's certainly a spectacle. Looking across the rest of the season, that may be a charge levelled at much of what World Stages London has on offer, but that will remain to be seen over the next couple of months.