Wild Swans, Young Vic

Welcome to theatre, in widescreen. Wild Swans is a historical epic that spans 30 years of China’s history in an hour-and-a-half. The stage has been stretched to fit it all in. Taking centre stage is the true story of one family’s struggle to survive. Wild Swans is a spectacle. It is a theatrical blockbuster.

Each scene change is carried out by a lot of hard work from the performers, echoing the theme of how people make the world. Everything can change, and it does. We go from market place to field to hospital and beyond. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but the results are jaw-dropping. Revolves and flies can take you to different worlds, but seeing the toil go into it lends to the epic feeling.

The story is as much about China as it is about the characters in it. We hear about cold warlords, see dreaded famine, and the fanatical Red Guard. The timeline in the programme helps to keep track of these huge events as the plot gallops through the decades. It is amazing to think how recently this all happened, and to imagine what life is like in modern day China: the superpower.

These are precisely the thoughts World Stages London is trying to conjure. A huge collaboration between the Young Vic and many international partners, focused on the history and experience of one of London’s major cultural communities, Wild Swans is the first in the season, running across London right through til June.

Learning about China is history, learning about people is theatre. Shou-Yu is son-in-law, husband, father and party member all at once. The roles often conflict and bring us the most gripping moments of drama. Shou-Yu, played expertly by Orion Lee, is a man of remarkable honour and courage. Actions that could be conceived as prideful are truly driven by righteousness born from witnessing injustice.

De-Hong, played by Ka-Ling Cheung, is the central character who is just as noble as her husband. She is maltreated by the party and we see her wrestle with her ideas of what China could be. Yet I never quite invested in her character. A large barrier was certainly her American accent, which was shared with about half the cast, that no amount of design could disguise.

Wild Swans has an enormous supporting cast and credit is due to Julyana Soelistyo, Celeste Den, and Annie Chang. Each of their performances was nuanced and added heart to the show. We could feel them growing with each event and see it etched on their faces. All the cast were strong and took part in the show’s many movement pieces.

The show’s scope of ambition is huge. Video installation, puppetry, movement, performance, usually you can expect one or two of these elements in a production. Wild Swans was capable of achieving all of them but never excelled in one. However, it is refreshing to see such ambition existing outside a commercial production.

It staggers me to think how recently this happened in China’s history and how different life could have been living there. As I left the theatre I overheard a young Chinese family where the children were being children, amused at being splashed by the water on stage, a world away from famine and tyranny.

Wild Swans is playing at the Young Vic Theatre until 13 May. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic Theatre’s website. Photography by Chris Nash.