I have just seen the best stage design of the year. That is no superficial or merely decorative matter.
Miriam Buether's vision of Wild Swans does exactly what superlative design can do: render not only the look of a place but the rhythm of a play. As the set slides and swivels, as it is (literally) swept away, as a new world emerges gradually, revealed by workers swabbing a whitewashed wall, or barges with a bang of guns into an old scene, Buether's scenes chart the momentous and terrible crash of one era into another in 20th-century China and take you into the heart of Jung Chang's groundbreaking book.
This is as well, for in Alexandra Wood's adaptation the dialogue is only intermittently alive. When it was published in 1991, Chang's book was a revelation because of its intimacy and particularity. She uncovered the history of modern China from the inside by tracing the lives of three generations of women: her grandmother, taken as a teenager by a warlord for his concubine; her mother, first a zealous communist, later forced to kneel on broken glass for supporting her husband in his disillusion with the Mao regime; and Chang herself, a youthful red guard who eventually escaped to England with the help of a scholarship. Much condensed for the stage, the narrative is altogether broader and more approximate, as if totalitarian flattening of language, the attenuation of the private individuality were infectious.
When the personal and political fuse, in the manner of Chang's book, Sacha Wares's staging (part of World Stages London and a co-production between the Young Vic, American Repertory Theatre and ATC) ignites. As it does in a scene that precisely demonstrates not only the cruelty but the risible stupidity of Maoist self-criticism sessions. "I need to change," one worker proclaims as he confesses his sin: "I wanted to wash in hot water." Still, the indelible impressions are visual: the bamboo and bicycles of the opening scene, where the warlord appears as a blue-faced puppet; the rosy faces and pigtails of revolutionary banners; the large watery wastes of the paddy fields where Jung Chang is forbidden to speak to her father, denounced by the regime, which stretch on video into the infinite distance as the sun slowly sets.
The geniuses of Royal de Luxe have pulled off another marvel with their giant creatures. The French company who brought the Sultan's Elephant to London and who made a thriller with mannequins in the shop windows of Nantes (a show long overdue in this country) has now created one of the few truly imaginative tributes to the Titanic disaster. Sea Odyssey is inspired by a letter a 10-year-old girl wrote to her father, a crew member who perished on the ship. The story it tells is of recuperation and a kind of rescue.
So big but so benign, these giant puppets have a transforming effect: you see amazement and amiability spreading across the faces of the crowds that mill to see them. The Little Girl, the same that met the Sultan's Elephant, is 30 feet high. She walks deliberately in her giant sandals and ankle socks, looking bemused (one operator is assigned just to her eyes, which are made of street lamps). She dons a flying helmet and goggles when she gets on her foot scooter, and, for climbing into a boat, a yellow sou'wester and mac. She looks down good-naturedly on children who sit astride her arms. In front of the Liver building she takes a siesta on a jumbo deckchair while a massive transistor radio plays Radio Merseyside.
Her Uncle, 50 feet high, with his big bronze face visible through a diving helmet, is covered in the puppeteers known as Lilliputians, who, like brigands in bandanas and red velvet breeches, leap from him two at a time swinging on ropes. A dog (Mexican, hairless, nine feet tall) bounds balletically: his tongue lolls and drips; his plumed tail (which has its own operator) wags; his ears twitch; children reach out to stroke him.
This great achievement of engineering (France, unlike the Un-United Kingdom, has cherished its engineers) is also an exceptional feat of balletic co-operation. What could have been merely a mechanical splendour is full of intricate expressiveness: this is an event that remaps the city; it expands the idea of what theatre can do and where it can be.
When Peter Gill directs he puts people together on stage in an unforgettable, totally distinctive way: an audience is made to feel the exact distance between them as if it were palpable. Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly – a trilogy of short plays about war, silence and secrets – seems in Gill's staging far stronger and more far-reaching than it did when I first saw it in 1999. Gill makes apparent the power that lies in the distillation of Holman's writing.
Two young men meet in the English countryside during the second world war: one is artistic, openly homosexual and provocative (Matthew Tennyson performs him with delicate relish); the other (a lovely slumberous performance by Jordan Dawes) is waiting to be shaken into sexual life. The two watch each other with the intentness of trapeze artists. A woman (beautifully restrained and flummoxed Susan Brown) is visited by a naval lieutenant (fine John Hollingworth) who tells her that her estranged son has died in the Falklands war, and brings her news of his entirely unsuspected secret life.
The second world war and the Falklands expedition come together in the final play which begins by seeming merely explicit and ends as a subtle picture of damage and bullying. In the Black Forest in the 1980s a woman artist who was tortured in Birkenau confronts a Falklands veteran surging with rage and his unspeaking, shrieking stepson. Sara Kestelman is impressive; Ben Batt pivots between brutishness and gentleness. Jack Boulter is remarkable as the boy. Between each play, all the characters, duskily lit, wind silently around one another: Gill, wonderfully, makes them look as if they were part of a single dream.