Tag Archives: The World of Extreme Happiness

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.

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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.

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