National Theatre Shed 7th October 2013
China’s ever-burgeoning dominance on the world stage has provoked a number of artistic explorations of the nation, its politics and its people. The dazzling example in theatre has undoubtedly been Chimerica, whose five-star reviews are piling up. This is not Chimerica, but it is nevertheless a powerful piece of drama, excellently written and beautifully staged, that digs deeply into contemporary Chinese realities – the search for employment, the pursuit of money, the ties of family and some much darker, more disturbing themes.
Sunny, a young Chinese girl living on a farm in a remote, rural area decides to move to the city and work in a factory that makes plastic dolls. All the while her family continues to struggle at home and the executives of the factory she works in have their own troubles. The play was clearly written to shock, and it hits hard from the very beginning – as two women enter, one going into labour, their bluntness and their swearing sets the audience tittering. Then the baby, a girl, is dumped in a bucket of pig swill, the woman’s husband hits her and the audience does not laugh anymore.
The tone throughout is loud, crude and absurd, all tinged with a very dark sense of humour which perhaps attempts to realistically reflect the candour and matter-of-factness with which the rural poor have to accept the grievous difficulties of their lives. There are some genuinely funny moments that are not tinged by this kind of horror, like the absurdity of the slogan-spouting Mr Destiny (Junix Inocian), a self-help guru who teaches these legions of poor workers how to think positively and empower themselves.
The staging is fantastic: neon rainbow lights run in a strip around the stage and rise up into an arc above. Below the arc are seven or so doors lined up like in Monsters Inc of different shapes and sizes, representing the different locations – so when we are back at the farm the grubby and battered wooden door is used but at the police station actors enter and exit through the smart, clean door. There are three tiers, too, so during the scene with Mr Destiny the factory workers stand on stage level with craning necks looking up admiringly at Mr Destiny on the mezzanine above. The whole design was ingenious, innovative and used to perfection.
The acting was generally very strong and I did not realise until the end that Daniel York and Sarah Lam were playing two characters each – the transformation from one to the other was impressive. It was Katie Leung, familiar to many as Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films, whose performance really stood out, playing Sunny with an earnest naivety that develops into startling confidence as the play builds towards its climax.
While there is a sense of faithfulness to real-life situations in China – infanticide, lack of political freedom, appalling labour conditions and tension between rural and urban populations – writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig never loses sight of the fact that this is a play. Plot kicks in towards the end and it has a Hollywood finale, which is not necessarily to say a happy ending, that reminds the audience just before they leave that this is artifice. We can buy into the artifice of neon lights and plastic dolls but the standard climax-denouement ending, although perhaps necessary, did not cohere perfectly with the tone of the rest of the play.
The World of Extreme Happiness is about the poor and the poorer. There is little, if any, happiness in it at all for the characters even if there are some guilt-inducing laughs for the audience. Its hefty two and a half hour running time may put some off, but it is well worth seeing for the quality of the writing and the dazzling staging.