The first thing you notice as you enter the Young Vic auditorium is the smell. Bowls of soup send a delicious odour wafting across the footlights to the seats. On the stage is a Chinese market in full flow, buyers and sellers mingle amid the baskets and wooden barrows: there is a vigorous impression of teeming life. The visual work is outstanding throughout Sacha Wares’ staging of Jung Chang’s bestselling memoir about her family’s experience of 20th-century China. Miriam Buether’s design stretches across a thin strip of the stage like a Chinese scroll. One scene rolls into another, as the production creates a vivid sense of passing decades and the country’s rollercoaster rush towards the 21st century.
We rattle from bustling market to collective farm, where workers grind up and down the soil-strewn stage. Earth and agricultural implements are then swept away to accommodate a clinically white hospital ward, which in turn is swabbed down to reveal patriotic images on the walls as backdrop to a stirring propaganda tableau. Each time the back wall changes, it seems to strip away another layer of Mao’s China until Wang Gongxin’s video projections appear to extend the depth of the stage for miles to create the huge paddy fields of a labour camp.
It is in this camp that the author’s father, Shou-Yu, ends up, and the staging creates a clear picture of individuals caught up in and then crushed by the system. Hope gives way to a bitter sense of betrayal, as Shou-Yu and his wife De-Hong find themselves brutally separated when he refuses to apologise for protesting about the Great Famine. His integrity remains intact to the end – even after his release from prison he refuses to pull strings to get his talented daughter into a foreign university.
Wares’ staging is excellent at suggesting the historical sweep of the story and conveying the dreadful personal cost of political events. What holds it back is the level of engagement with the characters. Alexandra Wood’s adaptation remarkably compresses a vast book into 90 minutes of stage action, but it pays a price. Despite strong performances from Orion Lee and Ka-Ling Cheung we don’t really get close to the protagonists and their changing thoughts and feelings, while the characters of both the daughter and her grandma are seriously underdeveloped. This gives the drama a rather undernourished feel so that it doesn’t quite deliver the ambitious scope of the production.