It starts in the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1924 when, Jung Chang writes, “At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general.’’ It ends in 1978, as Chang herself takes flight to a new life in London. In between, in Chang’s 500-page memoir, “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China,’’ her parents - both of them young, idealistic communists - meet, marry, fight Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, move to the Sichuan city of Chengdu, and survive famine before falling victim to the endless purges of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and being exiled to labor camps. It’s a bone-chilling tale of tyranny and mass murder. It’s also, in its depiction of bravery and beauty, a love letter to China.
Now, in a Cambridge-London co-production that follows years of development in Britain, it’s taking the stage. “Wild Swans,’’ a joint venture of the American Repertory Theater, the Young Vic, and Actors Touring Company, is getting its world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center, where it began previews yesterday. Young Vic artistic director David Lan, a mentor to ART artistic director Diane Paulus, sought the collaboration in part to tap this country’s deeper pool of Asian actors. After a monthlong run at the ART, it will open at the Young Vic in April.
Speaking by phone on her lunch break in London, where rehearsals were held before the company arrived in Cambridge this month, director Sacha Wares recalls that it all started in 2006, when Lan asked Wares if she would be interested in adapting “Wild Swans,’’ a huge bestseller after its publication in 1991. By that time, Wares says, there had already been some film script attempts, and even a proposed miniseries, but they had all failed.
“It’s very, very, very difficult to find a way to adapt it,’’ she notes, “because the book is so long and so complex and so rich. There are maybe 25 different versions of plays that you could write from that book. We managed to get to this point because we had so much exploration time.’’
Wares and her longtime colleague, designer Miriam Buether, decided after innumerable workshops “that we wanted to capture the sense of enormous change that the characters undergo in the book. So we came away with the design idea of five acts, in really different spaces, with really different moods. And we had decided by that point that we wanted to concentrate on the middle part of the story, which is the story of the husband and wife, as opposed to doing the full three generations.’’
After that, playwright Alexandra Wood came on board. She had worked with Wares at the Royal Court in 2008, and her first play, “The Eleventh Capital,’’ is about a Burmese civil servant who is forced to move to the middle of the country when the military dictatorship decides to relocate its capital. She was familiar with the theme of, as she says, “a regime or a government trying to change things in a massive way.’’
Still, how do you reduce 500 pages to a two-hour theater piece? “We’ve stripped it bare,’’ Wood admits. “But I think we’ve retained the heart of the story. In the book you get a lot of stories, which are fascinating, about members of the extended family, or the classmates, and things like that. But drama needs to be quite focused. Jung was one of five children, and I think in the first draft I had all five. But, really, the story we’re telling is about the next generation, and you can do that with one child as well as with five. Now it’s just Jung.’’
At about the third draft, Wood says, Chang entered the picture. “Since then, she’s read most of the drafts. I’ll write it, Sacha will have some notes, then we’ll have feedback from Jung, and then I’ll go back to the drawing board. Jung has definitely been involved, and I don’t think I would have been able to do things like cutting her siblings out without her permission. She hasn’t been precious about things like that.’’
Speaking from London, Chang says she’s very comfortable with what Wares and Wood have done. “The book is nonfiction. It’s restricted by true people, true stories, every fact accurate. But the play can’t stick with the book a hundred percent,’’ she says. “I think it’s only right for them to take what they want from the book. I simply wanted the adaptation to be faithful to the spirit of the book and the times of the story.’’
In particular, Chang approves of the decision to focus this “Wild Swans’’ on her parents. “When I wrote the book, it really started with my mother telling me the stories of her life and the stories of my grandmother, and in particular about the relationship with my father.’’
Wood adds, “When her mum first came to Britain, in 1988, Jung wanted to show her lots of things, but her mother just wanted to sit in the room with the tape recorder and tell her history. And when you know that, it makes sense that the heart of this is the mother.’’
What Wares, Buether, Wood, and Chang have come up with is a panorama that starts in a Manchurian marketplace in 1949 and moves through field, hospital, and apartment scenes to a Sichuan rice paddy and finally the modern, changing city. There’s water onstage, and at one point, 37 bags of earth get moved.
Most of the props, says Wares, have come from Beijing, and 90 percent of the costumes were fashioned in China as well. There are puppets, which are meant to convey back story succinctly. There are new characters, some of them composites of various figures from the book. The fourth and fifth acts feature video by the Beijing-based artist Wang Gongxin.
“By Act 5,’’ says Wares, “it’s quite a powerful vision, images of China moving forward into the present day, with all of that sort of speed and color and technology. It’s at the opposite end of the scale from where we start the drama, which was a very simple image of market stalls and puppetry.’’
Chang’s mother, who at 80 still lives in Chengdu, won’t be able to see this. “She wanted very much to,’’ Chang says. “But she has some health problems, and a long flight might be dangerous.’’
But Chang herself will attend the ART premiere. And she hopes to see her book published in China. “It’s still banned,’’ she says. “I feel deeply unhappy, of course, and I would like the country to change in a direction that a book like ‘Wild Swans’ can be published in its native land. And I would like China to become a place where people can talk about their past and can write about their past.’’
Does she think this is truly possible? “I don’t see why the party can’t dissociate itself from the Maoist past,’’ she replies. “After all, it has changed tremendously. The party is, today, very different from Mao’s time. So I don’t see why it can’t make this transformation. If it’s handled well. And if there is a will to do it.’’Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.