The World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre
Despite Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play being hosted at the National’s irritatingly gimmicky venue The Shed, this should not detract from the fact that this is a very exciting production. The World of Extreme Happiness is an acerbic yet heartfelt reflection on contemporary Chinese life, and presents to its Western audience, a play that is almost a kaleidoscope of vignettes displaying the various facets of Chinese consciousness.
Sunny (Katie Leung) has escaped an ignominious death as a baby by failing to drown in bucket of pigswill that her relatives put her in upon discovering that she was not a boy. Such a provenance has made her a fighter and she is determined to better herself, leaving her family of rural peasants to work in a factory in one of China’s booming metropolises. Encouraged by the enthusiasm for self-development that her colleague Ming-Ming (Vera Chok) has, Sunny too decides that she wants to rise and transcend her agrarian background.
The production pitches rural China against its urban counterpart: the old cynical way of thinking against the new enthusiasm and workers against their supervisors. Make no mistake though, the subtext is extremely clear and the Communist Party of China is the real subject of the play’s disdain. During the final third, the amusing and yeoman-like cynicism channeled throughout by characters such as Sunny’s aunt and her supervisor (Sarah Lam and Junix Inocian, respectively) is replaced with a much darker atmosphere and the final scene is simply as harrowing as contemporary theatre gets.
The World of Extreme Happiness may not be a great play but its message is astonishingly powerful. It presents Chinese stoicism as a constructed characteristic, rather than an inbuilt genetic trait and tells of a deep-lying humanism traditionally thought of as anathema within the oriental psyche. It is a politically important work, rather than one that resonates artistically and its message is thundering: the Communist Party of China is one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes ever known to mankind. However, the extent to which art can make a difference to such a situation will remain to be seen.
Guy de Vito
The World of Extreme Happiness is on at The Shed until 26th October 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for The World of Extreme Happiness here: