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Master Oh’s apology to Korean youth

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo & Juliet – adapted by Oh Tae-seok (Oh T’ae-sŏk, 오태석)
Mokhwa Repertory Company
23 November 2006 – 9 December 2006 / 19:00, 19:45
The Pit, Barbican, Part of bite06

Oh Tae-suk, born in 1940, had a traumatic start to his life.

When I was 11, the Korean War broke out. One day a car stopped in front of our house and my father was forced to get into it and he was abducted. After that, everything changed. (Oh Tae-suk, from Romeo & Juliet programme notes)

Since then he has emerged as Korea’s leading director / playwright, with 60 plays to his credit.

Oh Tae-suk emerged as an avant-garde theatre artist in the 1960s, opposing the then dominant shinguk, a generic term referring to modern Korean theatre modelled after realistic European and American drama. While “Western” in its framework, Oh’s theatre is decidedly Korean in sentiment and spirit and the result of forty years of relentless experimentation in search of a new theatre aesthetic that merges Western dramaturgy with Korean traditions. Oh’s original plays and his unique directing methods have made his name virtually synonymous with post-shinguk in Korea. (Kim Ah-jeong, from Romeo & Juliet programme notes)

Oh Tae-seok
Oh Tae-seok answering questions at the Barbican

In a self-deprecating Q&A session on 30 November assisted by Kim Ah-jeong, Master Oh said he was still learning, still experimenting with his craft. Each staging is different; even the text is likely to change.

Romeo & Juliet is his first adaptation of Shakespeare1. His choice was deliberate: Two lovers caught in between warring families in a divided community — a pretty good analogue for the Korean situation. Oh’s adaptation is designed as an apology to Korea’s youth from the older generations for their failure to resolve their country’s troubles. So the strife between the families is played up. The two families need little provocation to be at each other’s throats; the prince is deliberately portrayed as a weak and ineffectual leader; the stabbings of Mercutio and Tybalt take place in a bathtub, presumably in a reference to the lunatic asylum of Marat / Sade. And in a final warning, the deaths of the two lovers bring about not reconciliation but more bloodshed.

Given this background, we should feel a level of sympathy with the star-crossed lovers. But Romeo, along with his chums, initially comes across as crudely focused on carnal pleasures. Juliet and her friends come across as similarly sex-starved. It is only once the pair has had their first encounter at the party that we begin to be interested in the relationship and want them to overcome the family feud. Juliet in particular is very winning.

Visually, the performance is impressive. The white silk sheet covering the stage in the love scene, and the red sheet in the Capulets’ tomb, are effective; and the choreography both of the dances and the fights well-staged. Aurally, some of the background music is pleasant, Korean-style traditional music; some is more modern and doesn’t feel terribly appropriate — this cosmopolitanism is possibly another feature of Korean productions: I noticed a similar jarring use of music in the soundtrack to the swordplay saga Bichunmoo.

I wish I’d read the programme notes before the performance started. As I struggled to remember the details of the Shakespeare original from O level studies 30 years ago I thought to myself that certain passages had been left out. The programme explains, and Oh himself confirmed after the performance, that his trademark stagecraft techniques include skips and omissions, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. In fact the audience is made to work harder than usual. Most of the dialogue is outward-facing; and when the lusty youths are eyeing up the comely maidens it is in fact the audience they are looking at: the girls are downstage. The audience is even asked to advise Romeo on whether to tell Tybalt that he’s married to Juliet. All this, Oh explained, is part of the Asian performance tradition, where in Noh, Kabuki and Peking Opera the actors address the audience rather than each other.

Other Korean twists — apart from the more obvious ones like the soju-swilling nurse; the bean paste which is necessary to make Juliet’s potion work; and one family insulting the other by reminding them of their background in the butchery business — include the genre-bending that is familiar to Korean film watchers: there’s certainly more visual humour than one expects in a conventional Shakespearean performance — from the slo-mo martial arts film pastiche in one of the fight scenes (a technique also used in Jump earlier this year) to the frankly tiresome slapstick in the love scene.

Yet maybe such criticism is misplaced. Oh’s adaptation is geared towards Korean audiences, of which 70% are of college age. In Korea, says Oh, Shakespeare has been locked up in the classroom and burdened with over-reverential academic study. It has never benefited from breathing on stage. Oh, as a teacher as well as a practitioner, therefore felt drawn to bring it out from the classroom. So as well as this adaptation being an apology for the older generation’s failures, it is designed as a gift to Korea’s youth. For Shakespeare to have been popular 400 years ago, argues Oh, his plays must have been fun. So Oh is bringing the great-grandfather of theatre to Korea and bringing him up-to-date in a way that contemporary Korean audiences can identify with. Shakespeare has deep roots and is not easily swayed by the wind, says Oh, meaning that he can survive any adaptation. By all accounts, Oh’s Romeo and Juliet has been successfulo in Korea, playing to audiences of 600 or more, who have been laughing throughout. And the capacity audience at the Barbican also enjoyed the humour.


  • More photos from the Barbican Q&A and the Asia House symposium on Shakespeare in Asian Theatre on 2 December are here.
  • Barbican website here.
  • Times online review here
  • Evening Standard review here
  • Independent on Sunday review here
  • Observer review here

Appendix: David Tse Ka-shing’s King Lear at RADA.

Oh Tae-suk mentioned at the Asia House symposium that one of his future plays would be about Korean communities outside Korea. The Chinese diaspora is very much a concern of David Tse Ka-shing. The problem of communication within diasporic families, with youngest children in the family being well-versed in the local tongue and maybe being unable to communicate well with their parents in the mother tongue, is something which Tse plays with in his dual-language version of Lear. In his version, Lear, the head of a global business empire, speaks Mandarin, while Cordelia, head of the UK operations, speaks English. Lear, like a Confucian patriarch, demands respect and “face” from his offspring. And while the elder ones are prepared to talk his language and play the game, Cordelia is in a different world.

Yellow Earth Theatre Company perform Tse’s adaptation of Lear, with Mandarin and English surtitles at the Vanbrugh Theatre, 6-9 December 2006.

  1. He plans a Macbeth adaptation soon []

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