Sunday, November 17, 2013

Disappointing Dramas: The World of Extreme Happiness and Mansfield Park.

Two plays I saw in October depicted women fighting social restraints;  they disappointed for quite different reasons.


The World of Extreme Happiness at the NT’s temporary space on the South Bank, the Shed, was about internal migration in China –peasants moving from the countryside to the cities in search of economic and social gains, often at great personal risk.

 It struck a chord with me; I taught in China in 2,000 on an English Language Summer School south of Shanghai, where a booming crime rate in a small town was blamed on incomers competing for jobs.

 Since  then a  whole spate of films in China such as Jia Zhangke’s docu-drama 24 City (2008),  Yang Ya-zhou’s  Loach is Fish Too (2005)  and others, depicted migrants caught up in a rush to cash in the economic boom. Their aim was to lift their families from the hardships of subsistence farming.  

 This raucous production at the Shed covered most of China’s problems for the last sixty years from the one-child policy to famines under Mao, a sometimes overwhelming context.   

Lowly heroine Sunny is desperate to escape the shackles of her gender. Unlike the migrants in the above-mentioned films her goal is to improve her own status. Presented as a contestant in a talent show with  a top job in the business world as the prize, her westernised outlook seems puzzling.
A visceral script and strong performances from the cast grabbed audience attention. Vera Chok as Xiao Li, alumna of self-help books, plays  a convincing Chinese Barbie who shows ill-fated Sunny ( Katie Lung) how to smile and dress for promotion. The remaining actors give strong support, especially Daniel York as the world-weary veteran of the Cultural Revolution with no sympathy for a younger generation who want it all and want it now. Bold staging and a raw script from Ya-Chu Cowhig make a case for a China’s nightmare present built on a horrific past.

It’s sad to think the values of a society steeped in traditional values of hard work, patience and above all family ties could be overturned so quickly. Programme notes, however,  reveal little direct experience of mainland China by cast or writers.


Like most people, I’m long-time admirer of Jane Austen’s satirical portraits of her age and social class;  I’ve recently been preparing a course about adapting Jane Austen novels into film.

Mansfield Park is a favourite Jane Austen novel, despite the insipid heroine, Fanny, and her love-object the equally pale and loitering (thankfully off-stage for most of the play) Edmund Bertrand. I like the broader social canvas shown in Fanny’s home in Portsmouth. The plot recognises a largely ignored factor in Austen’s novels: dependence on the West Indies slave plantations to support the great English estates.

Fanny, whose aunt married higher up the social ladder than her own mother, is taken from her family in Portsmouth to be raised in the luxurious surroundings of Mansfield Park. When she refuses to marry the man chosen by her benefactor, Sir Thomas Bertram, she is returned to her chaotic seaport home. A spell of poverty may bring her to her senses and remind her of a debt of gratitude she owes to her benefactor Sir Thomas.

The Bury St Edmunds production adapted by Tim Luscombe seemed lost in the huge shallow soup dish of the Rose Theatre, Kingston, where it played at times like a Greek Tragedy. Much of Jane Austen’s action happens typically in drawing rooms, hedged-in garden walks or crowded assembly rooms (contrary to what the films depict). Here a vast space accommodates statuesque figures who never really come to life. Worse, some of the cast, especially the gruff-toned and admirably tall Sir Thomas Bertram, (Richard Heap) were at times inaudible. He was better as bluff Mr Price, Fanny’s seafaring father.

The adapter says he wasn’t sure where to put the interval, but the first half was soporific and the play only took off after the interval. I'd begun to think Portsmouth would be left out. Thankfully, the actors doubled up to play different roles in the contrasting family. Geoff Arnold was remarkably transformed with the help of wigs and costumes from Tom Bertram, ne’er-do-well son, and the ebullient Mr Rushworth, to Fanny’s beloved sailor brother,  William. Kristin Atherton made a lively Mary Crawford, plainly disdainful of clergyman Edmund’s chosen profession, and as Fanny’s sister Betsey.
How to make a drama from repressed emotions and genteelly-expressed opposition is a challenge, especially in such a large theatre. One answer to the staging problems presented by Mansfield Park may well be to heed Willy Russell’s Rita’s advice, and ‘Do it on the radio.’


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