Jung Chang's doorstop epic about three generations of life in communist China is unstageable in its entirety. But Alexandra Wood's 90-minute adaptation, vividly directed by Sacha Wares, captures its indomitable personal spirit, so essentially opposed to the groupthink of Maoist communism. And Miriam Buether's stunningly articulate design is worth a million words.
As the face of China is forcibly altered between 1948 and 1978, from pre-Revolution rural bustle, to rural famine, red banner-waving cruelty and urban clamour, the rush-mat back wall of the set is rolled away, whitewashed, scrubbed to reveal sentimental propagandist art, then rendered translucent by Wang Gongxin's delicate video art waterscape, in which Chang's father works among his fellow interned labourers in wet fields.
Buether's uncompromising designs are absolutely right for this story of passionate principles, which begins with new proletarian hope for Chang's parents and ends in cynicism, compromise and escape.
You can see, hear, sense and almost smell the 'interesting times' in which émigré author Chang, her mother and father De-hong and Shou-yu, and her foot-bound, ex-concubine grandmother were condemned to live. The author's parents struggle to preserve love and other merely personal values against the increasingly counter-factual say-so of their state. And the insane optimism of revolutionary progress is well illustrated when their local committee presents a giant papier mâché cow, aubergine and tomato to the party inspector, as a promise that Mao's inflated agricultural ambitions will be fact by harvest time.
Mao's culpability for subsequent mass death by famine is a central statement of Chang's book. Orion Lee, who plays her father, shows the terrible personal cost to a party man who cannot overlook the truth as his fellow-officials do, and consequently sentences himself and his family to imprisonment and abuse.
Katie Leung, previously known for being Harry's first snog in the Potter movies, is sensitive and intense as the teenage author. But it's her mother who emerges as the true heroine here: Ka-Ling Cheung plays her with vehemence, grace and understanding.
Ultimately, it's the setting that's unforgettable. Jubilant national music, exultant pageants of portrait-waving Maoists, or resigned dirt-sweepers change the scenes, emphasising the human scale of China's revolution – and visibly dissolving the individuals in a many-handed display which is as thrilling as the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony – but far more critical of totalitarian values.