I was chatting to my companion during the interval of Another Sun, the big-budget Korean musical, at Sadlers Wells last night. “It’s educational,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s for foreigners.” I pressed her on the educational point. The plot of the musical is said to be based on the Korean foundation myth about Tangun, but there was nothing to do with bears or mugwort in this show. I’m definitely no expert on Korean mythology, but I’d never heard of the mystic land of Gaon, ruled over by a semi-divine Maru-haan. I’d never heard of the twin rocky isle of Gumeunsae, but it looked strangely familiar. “So, is the story made up, or is there some Korean legend about Gaon?” I asked my friend. “No, it’s made up.” I was getting confused as to how a made up story could be educational. Behind me another Korean was chatting to her similarly puzzled friend. “It reflects our values,” she said. My own friend added: “I could see why our government would want to support it. It’s very beneficial for teenagers or children.” The production, it should be noted, was free, and it was very well attended.
The tale begins in the mists of pre-history, when mankind lived in darkness fighting with each other. God sends a sun to give them light, which they enjoy for a bit but then they start fighting again. So God sends them another sun. But this one’s a bit too hot and they all start to fry. At this point a son of god shoots down the second sun with his bow and arrow, and everything’s OK again. The sun falls into the eastern sea and from the sizzling water emerges those familiar-looking rocky islands. The land of Gaon is founded, and the isle of Gumeunsae is believed to have a talismanic power which protects the country. The archer becomes Gaon’s first divine ruler.
Now at this point in the story I’m confused. In western mythology, standing up for mankind against a vengeful god would be considered an act of hubris which would bring a terrible punishment on the perpetrator. He wouldn’t be able to live quietly as all-powerful monarch of a wealthy kingdom. He would be chained to a rock-face while an eagle slowly pecks out his eyes and liver. Or he would be tied to a chair and forced to watch Les Miserables.
For I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of musicals. The one I’ve been to most recently is Les Miserables, and the worst torture I can think of is being forced to sit through it again. I therefore went to Another Sun with low expectations, and during the first half they were profoundly met. That’s not the fault of the production itself, more that I have several missing genes when it comes to trying to enjoy this form of entertainment. As the curtain came down on the first half, just after one of the good guys had mysteriously stabbed himself, the subtitle screens flashed “20 minute interval”. Dang! Not quite long enough to queue up for, and drink, a stiff gin to fortify me for round two. Had I been on my own, I would have left at this point and reacquainted myself with my Korean DVD collection. But politeness forced me to stay, and I did my rounds of some of the audience. Apart from minor quibbles about not being able to see the subtitles, people were either guarded or moderately positive. For me the subtitles were perfectly visible, though they could have done with a native English speaker to edit them, and could have been better paced.
So what didn’t I like about the first half? Well, there was too much story to fit in. The prehistory was all packed in to the first five minutes, after which we are acquainted with Gaon’s more recent history, the squabbles between the elders, the fact that the current Maru-haan doesn’t fancy the bride that’s lined up for him. The evil neighbouring tribe hatch a plot to capture that rocky island and re-write the history books. If you hadn’t yet clocked that the rocky island was in fact Dokdo, that was the give-away clue.
Really, there far was too much going on, and none of the characters had anything interesting about them. And, bearing in mind that this was a musical, there weren’t any good songs. You’d think that the meandering score was just about to settle down into a big number, a tune you could relax into or go home humming, but then it would change key and move off in a different direction. You’d be left frustrated, waiting to be rewarded with a fragment of melody you could cherish. But it never came.
The score was mainly western, though a haegeum fiddle added a touch of Korean exoticism. What was billed as a daegeum sounded suspiciously like a conventional orchestral flute.
The stage set was interesting and dramatic to look at, and the good guys had very nice robes. The bad guys, of course, like Klingons or Orcs, had to make do with gothic grunge and big badass scimitars with notched blades.
I did stay for the second half, during which the show seemed more relaxed. There was less storyline to worry about, and there was a nice duet between two lovers. There was a fine looking wedding – though the bride’s head-dress looked rather too much the sheep-ears you wear in the jjimjilbang. The climax was the battle for Gumeunsae, at which our hero tried to end the cycle of war and retribution. All noble stuff, but I wish there had been better music to support it.
But then again, if you like Les Miserables, you’ll like Another Sun.