Wild Swans

I went to see Wild Swans, intrigued at a play about the Cultural Revolution, something I’d like to know more about. Plus, I like seeing world premieres.

Two friends had attended it, and gave it mixed reviews. One thought the language was stilted and awkward, and surmised that they were mimicking the propaganda of the times. The set also bothered her. It varies from a farm in rural China to the urban bustle of Beijing. At one point, the stage becomes a farm complete with dirt for hoeing. Cleaning the farm off the stage provides a natural spot for an intermission, only the play spans five acts in 90 minutes. What we get instead is a relatively long interlude that slows the flow of the play. Perhaps it also reflects something of the pace of Chinese life in the 1940s.

Though she was lukewarm on the play while seeing it, she says it has stuck with her and her husband, so rated it worth a look.

A second friend saw it and loved set and show without reservation.

I thought the set was fine, and sometimes clever, especially in its use of multimedia. The language did not bother me. perhaps it was because the entire cast is Asian, so I was not expecting a traditional American or British play. I don’t think I have ever seen a play that featured more than one Asian actor.

What struck me were the contrasts; in a play about three women, the dominant character is a man, Shou-yu, and one of unyielding principle. He is in that sense much like Sir Thomas More in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, struggling against forces larger than he is by drawing a line and saying ‘this is what makes me a man, and without my principles I am nothing.’ Only the line in this case, the cause of communism and an ideal that shared effort means shared reward equally.

Wild Swans, then, like so much of 20th century American literature, pits humans against forces they cannot control, forces that should overwhelm them. Indeed, the Communist party itself cannot control its own destiny, though the middle of the play shows it trying mightily. Each character makes choices about how they will respond to these forces. And you can draw a sense of the frustration that we sometimes see coming out of China, when orderly plans and prediction falter.

In the end, the tension builds as to whether anything can shake Shou-yu’s principles. No spoilers here. But I will note that afterwards, a random theatre-goer told his companion “it should’ve run 10 minutes longer.” Like much modern fiction, it leaves some things unresolved.

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