The versatility of the National Theatre’s new temporary venue, The Shed, is astounding, as is the quality and variety of its productions. Previously home to such diverse shows as the frantically surreal Squally Showers, or the powerful and pensive Ours was the Fen Country, this simple, unassuming space seems transformed every time you enter it. The latest offering, The World of Extreme Happiness, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, is no exception.
The set in this case is particularly striking. Entering the theatre to the bass pounding of industrial-sounding dance music, you notice the floor is covered in rubbery particles, perhaps to indicate a messy factory floor. Facing us is a set of doors of various designs, prefiguring the fast pace of this production and its unending sequence of entrances and exits, and its portrayal of people of diverse social strata. Here, doors symbolise opportunity, but, obstinately closed as they are, also absence, struggle and failure. Above the doors hangs an ominous-looking dirty sheet. This set, designed by Chloe Lamford, undergoes an extraordinary number of transformations which support and accentuate the action onstage. Particularly notable is a set bordered by a broken, neon rainbow, perfectly accompanying the show’s exploration of seemingly boundless, but ultimately somewhat hopeless, optimism. Design features – the lighting by Philip Gladwell and music and sound by Max and Ben Ringham – are incredibly well co-ordinated, and facilitate a colourful and multi-faceted story.
And so to the story – ‘the world’ in question here is China, 1992-2012. Even the most cursory knowledge of this period might lead one to guess that the reference to “extreme happiness” is an ironic one. This irony, this tendency to sugar coat and gloss over extreme hardships, is one that persists throughout the show. For a play that begins with an attempt to smother a female baby, and concerns itself with the harsh economical and social injustices of this enormous country, it remains, for the first half at least, surprisingly light and fun. This is taken to such an extreme that one begins to fear that they are trivialising the issues they touch upon so fleetingly.
When one enters after the interval however, these fears are quickly allayed. The bright lights of the city are still there, but they are somehow dimmed, murky. The dream of self-improvement and achieving success through determination and hard work has shown itself to be a hollow and shallow illusion. Here we see a stark and beautiful reminder that success and happiness are not always the easiest of bedfellows.
The cast is extremely strong and energetic across the board, managing this difficult change in tone, from light-hearted and humorous to gritty and hard-hitting, perfectly. Clever use of actors doubling up, such as Sarah Lam and Daniel York, who emerge as both rural peasants and urban high-flying business people, makes an implicit but unequivocal social comment long before it emerges in the narrative. Caustic political satire is cut through with intensely personal tragedies of self-improvement and self-sacrifice. This is an ambitious production, one which sets out to stage a vast panorama of narratives and social issues. It is a remarkable achievement, a frustratingly brief glimpse (despite the solid two-and-a-half hour running time) of a world vastly socially and culturally different from our own, whilst revealing heartbreaking, fundamental human truths.
The World of Extreme Happiness is playing The Shed until 26 October. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.