Growing up, we always studied Chinese History at school. But somehow, nothing would ever stick. There would be the old Emperor here or the deathly battle there… but those characters and stories were too removed from our daily lives. And interestingly, we were never taught contemporary history.
When I got to uni, I was then like okay, it’s about time to learn about my past. But exams always overshadowed the rich historical facts. Having to memorize 200 paintings or 100 main terms characters from the Three Kingdoms sucked the life and excitement out of Chinese History. Until I took 20th Century China. Until I got to write an essay about one of my already favourite books Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.
And do you know how excited I was when I found out that it was being staged??? And that I was going to get to work on the show – fly to Boston, see it, work with the creative team and cast, and meet Jung Chang! One of the most amazing experiences of my life. Plus I was so proud to see an all Asian cast on a London stage. I have actually never seen another all Asian cast before outside of Hong Kong / China.
This play is a good example of how shows are always being worked on and how great it is to witness that process. I first watched the play in Boston when it was previewing. Then watched it again during press/opening night. Although only a day apart, you could already see and feel a big difference. The energy level and the pace really picked up. Then two months later, I watched it on press night in London. And the show was completely different. Almost every scene had been rewritten and characters much more developed or even completely changed/removed. And it worked. It really worked. And what made it incredible was that I got to see the change and appreciate the organic process of the arts. How the cast and creative team work relentlessly, hacking away at it night after the night. How they work with feedback (both creatives and audience), figure out the delivery of lines, the pace as they perform it over and over again.
Interestingly, directors aren’t meant to feed any more drastic changes after opening/press night as that is the show they have decided to present. But when shows transfer (like this did from Boston to London), it is an opportunity for change.
The set was what everyone will remember about this show. A long shallow set that depicted China in a box. Every scene saw a complete transformation. Scene 1 was a market scene crammed full of sights and sounds. Sacks of soil then got swept across the stage to create a farm for Scene 2. The actors then rolled back the tartan wall coverings and swept away the soil to reveal a pristine white set for Scene 3, the hospital scene. Actors then used sponges and mops to wet the walls which, like magic (nicknamed Thomas the Tank Engine wall, a toy one of the creative’s kid had where you wet a surface to reveal a hidden image), revealed propaganda posters for the next scene. The stage then gets flooded while the walls dry (and so the propaganda posters fade away) to become a video screen to convey endless rice paddy fields for Scene 4. In Scene 5, the water drains, the back walls turn into triangular video screens allowing actors to stream on and off stage, creating a modern feel that aligns with the storyline. And in the final moment, Katie Leung (Cho Chang from Harry Potter) who plays Jung Chang steps out of the ‘box’ for the first time, challenging the opression that China faced through wars and the Cultural Revolution. Incredible set design.
However, because so much sadness and pain sustains throughout their story and thus the show, there aren’t many ups and downs in the piece, which means that the climax doesn’t stand out particularly. Perhaps a more lighthearted moments or comic relief could help break it up a bit, which will help to add a bit more texture.
Such a great and important story and show. I hope more people get to see it.