“A boy is a child, a girl is a thing”
Given that around about this time last year, the RSC was copping a lot of flak for casting just three East Asian actors in a production of The Orphan of Zhao, it feels something of a shame that more of a noise isn’t being made about the greater opportunities that this year has seen, in the capital at least. Currently in London, you can see Chimerica and The Fu-Manchu Complex, a second David Henry Hwang production – Golden Child – has just closed after Yellow Face earlier this year and the Hampstead had the evocative #aiww. Along with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness now at the National Theatre’s Shed, could this be a sign of the changing tide, of greater visibility in our cultural lives as theatres’ reluctance to programme Eastern influences ebbs away? Who knows, I am far from qualified to tell, but it has made for a fascinating enrichening of my theatregoing this year (and by extension, my short-film viewing).
Cowhig’s play feels like a good companion piece to Lucy Kirkwood’s writing, turning the gaze firmly onto contemporary Chinese society and how it deals with being the fuel for the motor of exceptional economic growth. Its protagonist is Katie Leung’s Sunny, dumped in a bucket of pigswill at birth for not being a boy but surviving and once grown to a young adult, she joins the exodus from the countryside in pursuit of the urban dream. But once she arrives, it is emerges as more of a nightmare and Cowhig pulls no punches as she reveals the seedy underside to this version of capitalism – the sheer exploitation of the rural migrants, the appalling working conditions, the high rate of suicide, the indoctrination of the mantra of self-help that keeps an endless flow of willing bodies knocking at the door.
Michael Longhurst’s direction embraces the liberating feel of this new part of the National and cultivates an increasingly sinister vibe as the tone of the play darkens. Chloe Lamford’s effectively simple set design allows him to play with the space cleverly and bursts of dance music and computer games imagery maintain a freshly raw modernity. Leung is excellent as Sunny, a young woman defiantly determined to plough her own furrow, not quite believing how far the state will go to punish insubordination and the supporting performances around her from the multi-role playing ensemble are equally adept at the comic (Vera Chok’s hilarious friend) and the tragic (Daniel York’s painfully scornful father).
There’s no doubting Cowhig’s opinion on the ruling regime in China and so it finishes on a brutally uncompromising note. I was left wondering, as I was in Chimerica, about the other side of Chinese society, about stories that aren’t so politically polarised and give a sense of everyday life for those who are relatively content (I think I am now saying I want to see the Chinese version of Ayckbourn, what have I become?!) My appetite has been well and truly whetted and I would love to see a greater diversity of Chinese plays, both new and old, on our stages.