National Theatre – The World of Extreme Happiness.
Review by Natalie York:
What price is paid for the Western world’s increasing reliance of Chinese production? What are the lives of the millions painting our dolls and making our ipads really like? The World of Extreme Happiness follows the life of Sunny, a girl born to parents who wanted a boy. Growing up in part of China’s vast agricultural community she moves to the big city to become one of the many teenage girls swallowed into the factory system powering the lives of Western consumers and the Chinese elite…
So far so preachy, and that’s pretty much what I expected heading into the dark confines of The Shed, the National Theatre’s temporary performance space. I expected a dour couple of hours slogging through pain and misery with a suitably grim message about the many evils of modern greed. What I got instead was a rapid-fire, dark, hilarious, tragic and stunning look at the life of one person struggling to keep up in a world that moved faster than she could. Honestly, I loved this show. It did deal with the hell of factory life, the hell of poverty, the hell of being a woman in a society that judges you as less worthy of investment than a man. However, we saw these worlds purely through the eyes of those who lived and worked in them, and got on with it, finding humour and hope in even the bleakest situation.
Hope in the face of insurmountable odds, that was the main focus of the play, not in the “Climb Every Mountain” sense though, this was much more about the dangers of hope, how it can lead to blindness and crushing disappointment. In China twenty percent of all books sold are self-help books and the problem, so writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig argues, is that when you have faith in the system and believe that you can fix any problems by fixing yourself then no one will blame the system. And it was the system that was the true villain here, whether it was the traditions that almost got Sunny abandoned at birth or the factory that provided monotonous, crippling labour with no real hope of advancement. We saw the humanity of the mother, driven to panic at the prospect of giving birth to a fifth daughter in a society that labeled her cursed for having no sons. We even saw the supposedly evil factory owner, haunted by the decimation of her own politically active family and determined never to be in such a vulnerable position again. Whilst the older generation seemed brutal and uncaring in their cruelty towards the young, they were at least given their own voice. The apparently foolish and vulgar overseer condemns his workers for having the temerity to be dissatisfied with a life that those growing up with starvation and mass death under Mao would have viewed as a paradise.
The cast are incredibly strong, zipping around, each playing three or four different roles (a triumph of quick changing from the National’s dressers!). I enjoyed Daniel York as Sunny’s neglectful father, a man who loves deeply but directs that love to his racing pigeons rather than his children and Vera Chok was hilarious as Ming Ming, a factory girl driven to success at any cost, although by the end of the play I wished I had never laughed at her. Katie Leung as Sunny was captivating to watch as even at her most manipulative and shrewd she retained a strangely indestructible sense of innocence. The accents, however, ranging from English to Chinese to Scottish were a bit distracting at first as they seemed to have no relation to geographic or even family relationships but you got used to that fairly quickly so it became less and less of a problem. Michael Longhurst’s direction kept things thundering along at a terrific pace, only slowing down for moments of genuine horror but never missing the opportunity for a quick laugh and the set by Chloe Lamford gives the whole thing a skewed, nightmarish quality with pyramids of toy dolls and a neon rainbow hanging ominously over the stage.
Ultimately I would say that The World of Extreme Happiness is well worth a trip to the National. It may be an acquired taste but it isn’t depressing or alienating and the humour and life that invades this dark world stop it from ever being unbearable, for the audience at least…
Performances run until 26th October