Every 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.
TW RATING: 4/5
They also have a children’s show, The Dandelion’s Story, which I haven’t seen yet – but I will.
- Mong-Yeon – A Love in Dream | The Dandelion’s Story : buy tickets on the Edinburgh Fringe website.
- Modl Theatre website
(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.
- I have seen Les Miz, and would add “overblown” to the adjectives you use – Ed