It’s been quite the year for hard-hitting plays about China, to the extent that I feel like I’ve spent more time in 2013 with certain British East Asian actors – notably Benedict Wong, lead in both ‘The Arrest of Ai Weiwei’ and ‘Chimerica’ – than I have with my own family.
Indeed, the extent of ‘Chimerica’s success has been such that cast changes were required to its West End run to release actors Vera Chok and Sarah Lam to star in this gripping new play from US writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, brilliantly directed by Michael ‘Constellations’ Longhurst.
Like Howard Brenton’s ‘…Ai Weiwei’ and Lucy Kirkwood’s ‘Chimerica’, ‘The World of Extreme Happiness’ concerns the Chinese state’s prodigious willingness to crush troublesome individuals. But Cowhig – who is half Taiwanese – offers a ruder, weirder, funnier, more insidery view of the emerging superpower than that provided by the white British playwrights.
'The World…' follows the adventures of Sunny (a winsome Katie Leung), the unwanted daughter of a pair of rural peasants who leaves behind her oppressive pigeon fancier father and heads for the insanity of the Special Economic Zone.
In this noisy, neon-spattered netherworld she falls in with a strange self-help cult, secures a highly dubious promotion in her janitorial job and finds herself in the unfortunate position of being given the chance to speak publically about the way China's rural poor are exploited to fuel its economic boom.
Salty, surreal and bombastic, Cowhig’s writing often recalls the in-yer-face Brit playwrights of the ’90s - her writing is bruisingly funny and occasionally excessively unsubtle. But Longhurst directs brilliantly and briskly, turning the NT’s unlovely Shed space into a rich, strange underground China, abetted by first rate sound and lighting design from Max and Ben Ringham and Philip Gladwell.
And there are big, stylized performances from a strong cast of six – a menacing Daniel York and alternately clownish and tragic Vera Chok are the standouts – to propel it forwards. There’s also an excellent turn from an actual live pigeon who sadly goes uncredited – well done that pigeon!
By Andrzej Lukowski