english girl at home

A Sewing & Knitting Blog, Made in Birmingham, England

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Wild Swans at the Young Vic, a review

Wild Swans at the Young Vic, theatre poster

Wild Swans 

I’ve already mentioned that I’m a big fan of Jung Chang’s work, and I booked up months ago to see the first ever stage version of Wild Swans during its stint at the Young Vic, in London. The play starts brilliantly, with the full cast on stage acting out a market scene as the audience enter the theatre and take their seats. It’s a lovely, involving, image and sets the scene for the remainder of the play, which makes the very most of the visual and physical. The stage changes dramatically through the course of the play – with soil and subsequently water covering the stage. The backdrop of the stage is used to particularly good effect – initially covered with a bamboo screen, peeled back to reveal a blank canvas, the blank walls are then physically covered in water by the cast, and (in the same style as children’s magic painting books) images of communist propaganda images appear. Over time the backdrop dries and the images fade, ready for a number of different scenes to be projected onto the backdrop near the close of the play. The physical effort required by the cast to manage the various physical changes had, for me, the effect of conveying the enthusiasm of the early communist supporters, the extremes of manual labour required by China’s peasants, and the hysterical emotion of the red guards. The impressive physical and visual aspects of the play also extended to the inclusion of some interesting set pieces, including a brilliant little puppet scene near the start of the play and a song and flag dance scene later on.

Plot-wise, the play managed to cover the lives of the three generations of her family depicted by Chang in her book. However, in order to do so (and within a relatively short running time of 90 minutes) the play kept very much to the bare bones of the story. I thought it did a solid job of conveying the story – both of Chang’s work and of modern China – but it was very much only the highlights and I would have preferred it to cover less in more detail. Given the short running time they could have extended the play’s duration and captured more detail. I felt that what was lost was the humour and also some of the pathos, as well as the depth of Chang’s Wild Swans. I didn’t feel that we were given time, as an audience, to learn enough about the characters. Nor the actors given enough time – or enough dialogue – to develop fully rounded, complex characters that we could truly care about. Personally I also didn’t think it conveyed the horror or absurdity of life under Mao amply enough. There is one scene in particular, where Jung’s family is attacked by Mao’s Red Guard, which for me didn’t convey how terrifying, and at the same time, how ridiculous such a scene  must have been for those who experienced it.

Wild Swans at the Young Vic, theatre poster


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Jung Chang on Happiness

This evening I went to see Jung Chang give the Baggs Memorial Lecture at the University of Birmingham on the topic of happiness. I love both of Chang’s books Wild Swans and Mao so was very keen to hear her speak in person. She did give a previous lecture at the University a number of years ago & unfortunately I missed it so this was my chance to make up for that.

In person, Jung is very glamorous & rather stately. It might be a sign I’m deeply shallow but how a person dresses makes a big impression on me & Jung dressed beautifully. She wore a large brooch on one shoulder which was almost octopus-like which I loved, it was a real statement piece.

Aside from her clothes, what Jung said also made an impression on me. She spoke about her own sense of fulfilment as a writer, but also touched on happiness more generally within China. She made the simple but essential point that people in China can be happy until/unless they come up against the regime. This is true for those whose professions are liable to put them at risk of censorship (artists, directors, writers, historians, etc) but also for the general public when they come up against the Chinese legal system, for example people whose homes have been repossessed as part of development projects.

Seeing inspiring people like Chang always tempts me to chuck in my job and do something more meaningful and fulfilling, but – although I don’t think I am too materialistic – I do find a good wage/pension/annual leave entitlement/sickness pay hard to give up easily. And I do so want to decorate the rest of my house…

Jung mentioned that her next book will be about the Empress Dowager Cixi who I find enormously fascinating so I can’t wait for that. As she said herself it will be a kind-of reverse from her Mao biography which demonised a figure who had previously frequently been celebrated, this will recognise the strengths of a historical figure who has long been demonised.
Jung Chang signed book