REVIEW: The World of Extreme Happiness, National Theatre


Explicit ‘fucks’ in an angry debate (whether it is better to have one girl or many) open the 2.5 hour play. Descriptions of graphic dreams set the tone for traumatic cynicism.

A girl is dumped in a slop bucket for being the wrong sex in rural China. But she is rescued, gruffly and inexplicably, by her father who cares more about his pigeons than the mother of his child. As he coos over real live pigeons on stage, the baby is fake – a toy doll. She is named Sunny.

The cute press picture and lack of adult warnings make the explicitness unexpected. The first half ends with a sexual act that leaves the audience reeling, amidst the numerous bloody and/or uncomfortable images continually presented to the audience. The act of cruel revenge by Sunny on her family, when she returns, and her bid for freedom over her own destiny in rejecting the choice to be a wife in the country, involves cruelty to animals. Are the uncomfortable scenes an act of revenge against the oppressiveness of the State, or at us – the Western audience? After all, animals are sometimes treated better than human beings, in the West.

Sunny, played by Katie Leung (from Harry Potter films), with a feisty nature, struggles to empower herself despite the traps of city life. Her journey coincides with the story of businesspeople set to make a documentary on how the factory affords workers a better life, where they journey to the city away from adversity. It is predictable she will be offered the opportunity to speak.

The stories we tell ourselves can be re-written…

…The loud American-style self-help inspirational speaker ‘Mr Destiny’ shouts to disco lights and music. Sunny doesn’t have to believe she was dumped in a slop bucket for being unworthy – she was held and cherished; she is special. The Shed is lined with toy dolls packaged in pink, a familiar sight of toys made in China, and they reflect the innocence of the stories we tell ourselves, and our children, about where they come from.  In contrast, the end of the first half shows Sunny as she resorts, desperately, to a sexual act. It is doubtful, perhaps, why or how a young girl would think to do such a thing, but nevertheless it is pointedly ironic that the stylised self-help clichés of success do not, in the end, win the day, as much as simple prostitution. The dolls glow and become sinister as the story grows darker.

The police, who capture the businessman’s wife, have the line that not everyone is for sale. Some people have values. But the women in the play, from rich wife to peasant girl, can’t afford values if they wish to survive.

The story of MingMing, the friend who introduces Sunny to self-help, is potentially more interesting. She develops from ambitious businesswoman to self-destructive, lost soul (with suitably graphic images). Her disappointment crushes her when she realises real life does not, and can’t possibly, live up to the fantastic expectations we imagine for ourselves in glamorous disco lights and over the top clichés of success. Mr Destiny doesn’t live in a mansion; his mantras do not translate into real images of success. Self-help is a false pretence, a story we tell ourselves.

Sunny’s journey from slop-bucket to stage to the State’s treatment is cynical, and it seems the play preaches the moral that it is better for an individual not to challenge the status quo. It really is better to be cynical, as the promoted quote says:

“There are only two roads to walk down. You can see the truth – and always be in pain. Or we can look away and be rich. And safe. And happy.”

In the dramatic climax, Sunny is given the chance to deliver a speech in the House of the People to proclaim the PR message about the factory changing her life for the better. We have seen the PR is false, and she chooses to tell the truth instead. Her speech resonates with powerful words about the disparity of rights between City people and country people within China, where the city thinks they can burn through peasants but the peasants do, in fact, have the chance to protest.

There are broader implications from the perspective of any Third World sweatshop worker producing goods for the Western world. The workers have no options, trapped at every turn; to survive, or to thrive and be torn down. In our minds, we all have to make that choice. The self-help becomes a staged joke, laughable and clichéd. To declare every human being has the same rights, regardless of where they were born, and they all have the chance to control their own destiny, that is subversive.

Sunny’s younger brother keeps her grounded, when she feels empowered by city life. He runs away from the factory and lives, homeless, with ‘peasants who still act like peasants’. But the play is inconclusive on whether he was right or wrong to challenge her to be true to her values. The play points to cynical choices as the key to success… in tough economic times, in China, under State control. It is all terribly understandable. And in the end, her brother makes a terribly understandable decision.

Some scenes are unnecessary and the last, perhaps, is one of them. It was disturbing and in some ways it might be better not to see what happened to Sunny in the end. The audience could reach their own conclusions, their own stories, and it could reveal their own cynicism or optimism. It could have ended with her father’s hesitation to accept compensation for relinquishing his daughter, when he had previously happily sold her as a wife in the country. That could have said it all.

The World of Extreme Happiness, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Directed by Michael Longhurst. The Shed at The National Theatre.