The fact Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness comes so soon after Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is no coincidence; the growing economic power of China has forced a shift in the way those of us in the West frame our politico-cultural experience, with our complicity in its morally questionable material output becoming a debate we must collectively tackle. But though Michael Longhurst’s startling and audaciously jarring production deepens the play’s self-awareness whilst commenting on China’s contemporary situation, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the text itself never really got to the root of the problem, interrogating the symptoms of hyper-capitalism rather than the rotten system itself.
Within the first ten minutes of the piece, Cowhig sets up a tension between rural and urban space as we see Sunny (Katie Leung) born and then, twenty years later, going off to work in a factory to earn money to educate her brother (Chris Lew Kum Hoi) and fund her father’s pigeon obsession (complete with nods to On The Waterfront). Instantly, then, the brutality of needing to work is set in opposition to the basic-but-seemingly-free life of a peasant. Sunny is coached by her co-worker Ming-Ming (Vera Chok) to liberate herself by taking control of her destiny, which ultimately leads to a sordid method of obtaining a promotion and becoming the poster-girl for the company’s recruitment of peasants. Their only way to resist, it seems, is by succumbing to the self-perpetuating methods of consumerism, buying books to improve well-being and attending talks hosted by ‘Mr Destiny’. Each one of them can then be commodified and traded as a limitless resource, their only source of capital being their youth.
But implicit in this, it seems to me, is the suggestion that capitalism is fine as long as it’s sufficiently regulated and each individual has a hold of their human rights. Which would be all well and good were it not for the fact that capitalism itself perpetuates these injustices so that they become inevitable. Similarly, we only get a superficial glimpse of the actual CEOs and because they are painted with fairly broad brush-strokes they instantly become the wrong-doers, thus negating the complexities of the system within which they operate. We get a bit of history from a humorous Junix Inocian, but it comes a little too late and doesn’t quite do the job of throwing the whole thing into relief. At times, then, Cowhig seems to be taking a fairly provincial, anti-city stance rather than probing further.
Chloe Lamford’s stylish set fits neatly into the confines of the Shed and injects energy into the play by placing six doors at the back of the stage to allow for quick entrances and exits as the people inhabiting this world are forced to move around constantly. A broken rainbow and spookily lit toy boxes act as representations of shattered dreams and allow for some cunning, evocative lighting work from Philip Gladwell. Max and Ben Ringham’s soundscapes move from booming bass tracks to flat tones, evoking the oppositional worlds of city and country. It all comes together beautifully in an intimate scene between Sunny and her brother, as they discuss their lives whilst playing an arcade shoot-em-up. Explosions and lights go off around them in a gorgeous representation of what can happen when the technical aspects of a production come together in perfect synthesis.
At times, the six-strong cast (all of whom multi-role, except Leung) struggle to hide Cowhig’s occasionally stilted dialogue, but for the most part a sense of drive shines through. Hoi and Daniel York show two sides of a masculinity given a strange powerlessness by the rigours of a post-1989 China, whilst Sarah Lam undergoes a stunning transformation as she flits between firm CEO and broken village-dweller. Chok is remarkable as the blinkered Ming-Ming, lacking any self-awareness, and offers a well-crafted foil to Leung’s lead, who is poised, honest and incisive by comparison.
Longhurst’s production is one which highlights the creation of a hyper-capitalist Real in China and the disparity between those who have conquered the city and those struggling to truly come alive within it. This is a piece rooted in China, but Mr Destiny’s mantra of “Honour, wealth, power, fame” could feasibly be shouted in any country of the Western world. The World of Extreme Happiness is a chilling warning about the dangers of hyper-capitalism, and though it sometimes lacks linguistic flair and a precision of argument, it is nonetheless a thoughtful piece which at its end teeters on the boundary between a glorious optimism and nihilistic despair.