Whether it’s whinging graduates declaring themselves the ‘jilted generation’ due to difficult economic circumstances or high-profile documentaries on what social media and internet porn are doing to young people’s malleable brains, there’s no shortage of analysis of Western youth and how they look at the world. Yet what of China’s young? How the generation who grew up under the expectation of rapid economic growth respond to the coming decades is a major question for the Chinese state, and one of considerable importance to those who take a healthy interest in humanity.
Fortunately we’ve been treated to some fascinating work on the subject recently, with Lucy Kirkwood’s lauded Chimerica playing in the West End to rave reviews and Hao Wu’s excellent film The Road To Fame (coming to BBC4 in December). To that list, we can add another new play, The World of Extreme Happiness.
American playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig begins the play in familiar territory, with two poor peasants in 1992 disposing of an unwanted female baby, before her father has a sudden change of heart. The baby grows up to be Sunny, an ambitious teen (played by Harry Potter’s Katie Leung) who is desperate to make her mark as a ‘city person’ in Beijing, but is stuck in a no-hope cleaning job and on the brink of a marriage of convenience which would keep her in rural drudgery forever. This all changes when she meets a motivational guru, trained in the ‘inspirational sciences’ and offering dodgy Harvard degrees for those willing to ‘rewire your brain for success’. Sunny decides to set out on a path to realise her ‘destiny to make lots of money’ – with tragic consequences.
With the staging making use of garish, Las Vegas-style lighting and decorated with boxes of toy dolls (bearing the slogan ‘Made In China’) you are braced for a predictable attack on China’s material development, with plenty of pointed references to the suicides at the Foxconn factory and digs at vulgar US-style consumerism. Yet while it certainly does tick those boxes, The World of Extreme Happiness has a touch of the insider’s bite, making it altogether more challenging and unnerving than an easy trot around China’s familiar charge sheet.
Cowhig certainly doesn’t seem to feel much ambivalence about China’s economic rise, pulling no punches over the grim realities of rural poverty and the crushing banality of agricultural labour. Meanwhile, Sarah Lam’s and Daniel York’s factory owners are hard-bitten pragmatic survivors of a darker political and economic period, rather than cynical money-grubbing suits.