The World of Extreme Happiness

28 Oct

I went to watch the World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre, not knowing much about the plot apart from the fact that it is set in China.  When it began, my first thought was ‘hmm, I don’t know whether I like this.’  Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s dialogue is crude, brash and direct which I initially found a tad grating.  However, as the play progressed, this bothered me less and the harshness of the language seemed appropriate for the setting.

The story explores many issues in contemporary China and this usually is a bit of a turn-off for me.  We are first greeted by a scene where a woman gives birth to a daughter which miraculously survives despite being thrown in a rubbish bin.  The girl, named Sunny (and played by Katie Leung of Cho Chang fame), grows up to become a spirited and ambitious young girl.  Her mother died shortly after giving birth to Sunny’s younger brother (a hyperactive somersaulting creature) and her father is more concerned with his racing pigeons (a real life pigeon with better acting skills than some actors I’ve seen…)  She goes to the city where she works as a toilet cleaner for four years without getting a promotion.


Here, the theme of the rural poor vs the affluent urbanites pops up and I enjoyed the way this conflict was portrayed.  The discrimination towards the rural farmers and peasants is inescapable and the play looks at this through Sunny’s confused eyes.  She wants desperately to belong to the fast-paced city and her aspirations lead her into dark territory, from performing sexual favours to get a promotion to tricking her father into eating his beloved pigeons as a sign of her resentment towards him.  Another issue – the state vs business.. at times I thought that Cowhig was trying to pack a little too much into the play which came across as rather haphazard and confusing.

I found Sunny’s journey into the wacky world of self help fascinating and it was here that the brilliant set design really excelled itself. The self-help industry, which accounts for 20% of China’s book sales, seemed at first a comic diversion -many Chinese people comfort themselves with these supposed tools of empowerment.  But the truth is that no amount of self-empowerment or enlightenment is enough to beat the Chinese system, an insidiously repressive regime whose presence lurks everywhere.

The acting was good – Katie Leung’s performance was surprisingly watchable and Vera Chok, in particular, was excellent.  Each actor (apart from Leung) played a number of characters and their energy was palpable in a play that would otherwise perhaps feel a little long.  I was moved at the ending which I had not anticipated and came as something of a shock.  Behind the facade of ‘extreme happiness’ lies extreme darkness and it was these scenes that occurred in the denouement that I found most captivating.


3 Responses to “The World of Extreme Happiness”

  1. Denise October 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    Wow so much to cover in one review! I suppose there *is* so much in contemporary China to explore in a play. Hell, there’s enough in my one very small part of the Chinese experience to last me a lifetime hence I usually find this kind of thing a turn off too. But this sounds like a necessary kind of play.

    I often think about the way the Cantonese language is so brash and direct and reflect on whether this developed with the Chinese way of being or whether it’s just coincidence.

    Did you find this a difficult play to watch, emotionally? In recent times many films and books have moved me. But usually with an uplifting message. This sounds a bit different from that?

    Good review btw.

    • jadeinlondon October 28, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

      Hi Denise,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think I’m initially pretty sceptical with plays that try and deal with too many issues but in the case of China, I do think that there’s a lot to pack in! I think the directness of Chinese families is reflected in the language (especially with Cantonese!) and from my tiny experience, I think traditional Chinese families are so complex and often I find it difficult to relate to my elders and their beliefs and ways of being.

      I did find some bits very difficult to watch and the ending especially moved me. I think there wasn’t a real uplifting message, though, especially as the writer so effectively contrasted the ‘extreme'(almost frantic and erratic) happiness of the self-help world and the aspirations of becoming part of the elite city folk with the pervasive, inconquerable power of the government. It seemed to be saying that there is no way out without an upturning of the communist regime which I think is probably true. Nevertheless, it is a morose message and a thought-provoking one.



      • Denise October 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

        I wondered if it would be hard to do an uplifting play about China. A long time ago I did see a very good, very funny one about cultural differences. I think it is easy to do comedy about the Chinese. They’re pretty odd in lots of ways! But when you start to look underneath the eccentricities, there is a lot of sadness. I think that is a problem with the Chinese in general. Because there is so much sadness, it can be too much to deal with, so brush it away, brush it underneath. Don’t be sad, because to admit sadness is to start to look at how bad things really are and then you couldn’t bear it. Only look to what you can hope to achieve, and how you can go about it.

        That’s my experience anyway.

        I didn’t realise there was so much self help out there.

        Thanks for bringing your review to WordPress. It’s good to know these things are happening and ideas coming out there.

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