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A Love in Dream: Edinburgh’s must-see production

Mong-YeonEvery year Colin Bartlett goes to Edinburgh to sample the various productions at the Fringe, and makes a point of seeing the Korean talent. Each year I hope he’s going to write a survey of the various shows for LKL. This year, I’ve managed to intercept an email he wrote to a friend recommending Modl Theatre’s “Mong-Yeon” (A Love in Dream)

First, the synopsis:

In April 1998, a pair of hemp shoes and a letter were unearthed while clearing land for houses near Andong, Korea. Modl Theatre troupe has resurrected this story, first written in a letter 400 years ago.

Colloquially, a Korean woman has long been “the mother of her first child” rather than her given name. Through the letter, “the Mother of Won” speaks about the intense longing for her deceased husband.

Refusing to acknowledge the anguish of her loss in the real world, our heroine retreats to a living world of dreams, creating tales of love, loss and reincarnation that are beautiful, philosophical and uniquely Korean.

Now, for a slightly edited version of Colin Bartlett‘s informal review, reproduced with his kind permission. Any rough edges are the fault of the editor.

If you’re wanting recommendations of shows to see in Edinburgh, go to see Mong-Yeon.

The production is difficult to categorise. I saw it last year, and saw it again yesterday, and whilst I remembered it as being good, I’d forgotten how good it really was. I’ll be going to see it again, so that will be twice this year. There are some parts (not many) I think you might not like, or perhaps think a bit trite or sentimental or “Les Miz” or “Miss Saigon”: the singing, not the acting, that is. I haven’t seen Les Miz, but I did see Miss Saigon at Drury Lane, and was somewhat disappointed1. These (few) parts are there for a reason, as contrasts to the more “Korean” majority of the piece, but my preference would have been for a somewhat different contrast than the ones chosen.


  • Last year, not only I thought it was very good: so did the Scotsman 4*, British Theatre Guide 5*, and Three Weeks 5*.
  • Although it’s mostly in Korean, you can mostly work out what’s going on, and there’s also a bit of English to help with that: in fact some of the English parts are more obscure than the Korean – there’s quite a bit of quoting from the Bible (the Book of Kings, or something): A beget B, who beget C, who beget D, etc, and I wasn’t at all sure what that was there for. (Tip: read the back of the postcard flyer before seeing the performance, not after the performance in the middle of writing an email recommending the piece.)
  • There’s a cast of 14, including 8 musicians, three playing Korean instruments (bamboo flute, drum, two string fiddle similar to the chinese erhu) who are playing most of the time, and 5 who are also part of the action, acting and moving/dancing as well as sometimes playing music: 2 violins, 1 cello, 1 electric keyboard and 1 harmonica.
  • The musicians are very very good, particularly the ones playing the Korean instruments: in my fairly wide – but not very extensive – experience Korean music is maybe the most strongly rhythmic (but not boringly repetitive rhythmns) in the world. Even at quite slow tempos there is an immense forward drive from the drummer. (That may not be true of slow Korean ceremonial music, which is maybe even slower. But there is none of that type of Korean music here. At least, I didn’t notice any.)
  • There’s a wonderful Korean wedding scene – very lively and also funny – with a bit of audience participation, nothing dangerous, just clapping and if you like what they’re doing in that scene – and you will !! – as part of the play the performers at the wedding make a collection from the wedding guests, including us (the audience) – “In Korea at weddings it is traditional to give gifts: if you haven’t got a gift, then money is quite acceptable!”. A novel – and justified ! – way of getting a little extra revenue. (Just joking, I don’t think they were really expecting contributions. But they got some, including from me!)
  • The piece as a whole is touching and moving.
  • There has been a great deal of care taken in the production:
    • When the actors are walking quite quickly in a circle around a main character, they suddenly stop, and it is simultaneous.
    • As you wait outside the performing space at the top of the Adam House, the railings round the “atrium” have lots of wreaths with small pictures (in fact postcard flyers for the show) of the recently deceased husband, and when you get inside there is a funeral scene waiting for you. And the end is a variation on the opening.
    • As a final example, without giving much (if anything) away there’s something else happening outside before the performance starts which you might or might not notice, but which is a detail showing the care taken.
  • There’s even a bit – not a lot – of Korean pansori, mostly (but not exclusively) by the lead actress. Questions which a producer/director might not be expecting as the first comment made to him by a (non-Korean) member of the audience as he leaves the smallish theatre: “Has the leading actress had training in pansori?” (I asked, because whilst I’m not at all confident that I could discern a bad pansori performance if I heard and saw one, she seemed rather good to me.) First he asked me something to the effect of how did I know about pansori, so I explained (film Chunhyang, and saw all five still existing old pansori live in Edinburgh in 2003 or 2004), and then I think he said yes, she had had training, and I think he also said that she was quite a famous pansori singer in Korea. (But I’m not sure about that: are there any LKL readers out there who might be able to look at the Modl Korean website to check, and / or maybe speak with the Modl people in Edinburgh?)

There’s a review in Three Weeks:

The world of dreams is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. Performed partly in English, partly in Korean, with its slow pace and sometimes puzzling symbolism, ‘Mong-Yeon’ might not be for everyone. However, the excellent cast and the visually stunning set design are very likely to take you to the heart of that moving story, while magnificent live music and strange chanting contribute to the mesmerising atmosphere. Based on a letter, written four hundred years ago by a woman who found it impossible to live without her beloved husband, the show is full of heartbreaking hope and anguish. The audience gets a glimpse into Korean funeral and wedding traditions, although this tale will reach across all cultural boundaries to hopeless dreamers everywhere.

They also have a children’s show, The Dandelion’s Story, which I haven’t seen yet – but I will.


  1. I have seen Les Miz, and would add “overblown” to the adjectives you use – Ed []

(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

7 thoughts on “A Love in Dream: Edinburgh’s must-see production

  1. There’s also a review in The Stage by Nick Awde (it’s a Stage Must See):

    This haunting show from Modl Theatre has sold out in Korea for the past three years and it is easy to see why. You find yourself drawn immediately into the simple yet multi-layered tale of a straitlaced Korean woman mourning the death of her beloved (Nam-Soo Jin).

    In the bereft widow’s dreams the couple become reunited and so defy time and reality, but as she demands more, the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead starts to blur dangerously.

    Speaking in both Korean and English and led by Ae-Ri Park and Nam-Soo Jin as the doomed lovers, this focused 13-strong ensemble expertly balances drama with music as they sing or play instruments at pertinent points to propel the plot along. Stand-out scenes include the colourful wedding ceremony taken over by an ebullient singing beggar (Wook-Hyun Sun), the poignant ritual of the widow toasting the departed or her vain search through the gigantic nuptial bedsheet that billows across the stage.

    Visually sumptuous and emotionally breathtaking, A Love in Dream is all the more remarkable for its seamless mix of traditional and modern genres, where Ho-Sung Kwon’s sensitive direction melds movement with Jung-Sook Kim’s sweeping script and Kyung-Wha Lee’s lush compositions.

  2. Three other comments, as evidence for your wish:

    A private email to me, so I’ll keep the source anonymous: “I did like the Korean piece you recommended, for several reasons, although it’s not my kind of art as a personal choice. Wonderful performance, however, and splendid use of the space.”

    Two user reviews on (both giving it five stars):

    Dream of a show!: The show is well put together with all movement, music and song pefectly timed transporting you into the atmosphere of this touching and sad tale. The music is wonderful and visual nature of the show mean the language barrier is of no consequence. A must see of the festival for me!

    Mesmerising: This is a really captivating and moving play. The staging is beautiful and creative and the cast are wonderful. This is what theatre on the fringe should be – take a chance and get a ticket while you can!

  3. Part of an email to me from Modl Theatre:
    … Aeri Park is really famous traditional singer…
    so that confirms what I thought I heard.

  4. And one from our friend Youngmi:

    * A dream in Love *

    I was thrilled from the beginning to the end of the play. It does grab people’s soul for the entire play. Full of tension and sadness, anger and horror was there. For Koreans the actors and actress’s white dresses were mostly that of dead person (or Ghost). Just looking at the shades behind the white linen on the stage may bring goose bumps in many Koreans’ arms. It is the typical scene of traditional ghost movies in Korea.

    However I didn’t understand the mixture of Christianity and traditional Korean shamanism in the play. They were chanting Jesus but I didn’t see much of that fitting in the story line. Probably the play writer tried to mix with the traditional thoughts and the modern one in Korea.
    To me it was weird to see ‘salpulii’ which is the performance to comfort the dead soul in the beginning of the play when people were dancing and chanting holding white linen and put money and flowers (that is linked to Shamanism) and the dead ghosts chanting Jesus.

    So for me I followed more of the story line and some implication the writer was trying to give to the audience but I lost somehow at that point.

    The actress, Ae-ri Park was just amazing. She sang so beautifully. In general I am a huge fan of western opera but not that of Korean traditional song.
    But I have to admit that I felt I was soaked into the voice and the story.

    I loved when she sang ‘sarang-ga’ (a kind of Korean version of serenade) in the middle of the play when she was singing with food that she made for her husband.

    The rest of singers were also very amazing too. I also loved the beggar’s performance during the wedding. The song is also famous for the traditional beggars. Traditionally beggar’s did not take free food or money but they did entertained people for their food ^ ^. You would see the street performers these days and the traditional beggars in the old time in Korea ^ ^.

    The only part that I felt has nothing to do with the play itself but in general I do not like this kind of story. This reminds me of Madam butterfly (opera) or fatal attraction (movie). Too much love, and sadness that human being cannot handle with is just too miserable. It shatters my emotion and takes me a bit of time to readjust myself. I was thrilled and really into the play for an hour but when I was out of the theatre I really needed warm chamomile tea to calm me down. What a play … phew!

  5. I feel a need to post the review from
    in full here in case the link becomes subsequently broken.

    Visually Beautiful Korean Love Story

    Mong-Yeon (A Love in Dream)

    Modl Theatre , C Venue, Edinburgh and Borough Theatre, Abergavenny , August 30, 2009

    Mong-Yeon (A Love in Dream) by Modl Theatre Modl Theatre Company has had a big hit with this production back home in Korea. The ensemble of thirteen blends music, dance and dramatic narrative in a seamless flow. The musicians move back and forth from their seated positions to take part in the action as required. The keyboard player has a face of delicate porcelain. There is the unfamiliarity enough of an Asian culture to engage and visual beauty enough to entrance.

    The plot is the pursuit of a dead husband. At times explanatory pieces of English are put in to aid narrative understanding. But these additions, spoken in an almost childlike manner, are not really necessary. The cast do wonderful things with a couple of giant backcloths. At one point the lead sings amidst a piece of florally decorated cloth that billows all around her in the wind. A traditional Korean wedding is presented, followed by a wedding night of exquisite grace.

    The overall colour motif is white although a vivacious red rooster invades one scene to great comedic effect. The production is suffused with a warmth throughout and the audience responded fittingly with a mighty noise of approval.

    The company’s Scottish venue was high up in a building dimly lit at night and scruffy in appearance. The company had decorated the public space outside their performance area with a dozen bunches of flowers; that one cultural gesture set them apart from the hundreds of other companies competing for attention.

    Asia has been less badly hit by the economic slump. Nonetheless, it still takes some effort to get an ensemble this size halfway around the world. All credit then to Lee Seung-Woo for getting “Mong Yeon” here; it gave me delight, even if capturing its qualities adequately in writing eludes me.

    By the strange serendipities of touring Modl Theatre’s visit takes in the Edinburgh Festival and Abergavenny’s Borough Theatre Saturday 5th September. Anyone with an interest in physical theatre, world theatre, or just plain theatre, will find a visit well worth their while.

    Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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