Festival visit: Mokhwa Repertory Company – The Tempest

Oh Tae-seok at a press conference at the KCC
Oh Tae-seok at a press conference at the KCC (photo: LKL)

At his press conference in London last Monday, Oh Tae-seok spoke about his work with the Mohkwa Repertory Company. One of the priorities of Master Oh, who had spend many years as director of Korea’s National Theatre company, is to nurture the next generation of actors. And one of the pleasures of working with his own company is to keep honing away at the production, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. His Tempest premiered in Seoul last year, and clearly things have changed since then. The programme notes for the Edinburgh production, based on the Seoul performance, had a flute among the musicians, and had Ariel as shaman priestess made of straw. If either was true of the Edinburgh performance, I wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately, one person who was paying attention was the translator and surtitle operator Paul Matthews, who found that there were a few minor last-minute cuts. And as he prepared for the second night’s performance he tweeted: “Sitting in my surtitle booth, finished all the changes for tonight’s performance, hoping there’s no surprise new scene at the last minute.”

The storm in the memorable opening scene: long sleeves represent the waves
The memorable opening scene: long sleeves represent the waves

If the objective of constant re-examination of the way things are done is to keep the cast fresh and on their toes, it certainly worked. The production had the air of discovering the work anew, and conveyed that to the audience. And from the audience’s perspective, yes, it was like seeing the play afresh, but not just because it was being performed in a foreign language.

Does Shakespeare work when transferred to another culture? Fifth century Korea is no more alien to a modern audience than is mediaeval or renaissance Italy. An island populated by sprites and a monster, ruled over by a magician who can command the waves and summon up Roman goddesses to officiate at a wedding, is pretty outlandish, and transporting it a couple of thousand miles to the east is not going to make the scenario any more outlandish. Indeed, the ability of the King of Shilla to force out the King of Garak, its tribute-paying neighbour, is probably more comprehensible to a modern British audience than the ability of the King of Naples to secure the banishment of the Duke of Milan.

Caliban, a double-headed monster, almost has Miranda in his power
Caliban, a double-headed monster, almost has Miranda in his power

In fact, transferring the scenario to another culture can freshen the story and enable you to see new things. The audience at the King’s Theatre certainly found plenty of humour in the production – indeed I wondered whether a claque had been hired. The cast assured me that it had not, but that nevertheless the audience had picked up on the humour very early and were laughing at all the expected places. Indeed, The List‘s review claims that this Tempest is “one of the most laugh-out-loud funny shows you’re likely to see in Edinburgh this year.”

The opening spectacle was possibly the most memorable. The long white sleeves on the robes of the sailors and their royal passengers bloomed up and down in clouds of dry ice, producing a striking depiction of a tempest. Then, as the ship burned, the sailors waved red fans to depict the flames. Another nice touch: Caliban is a double-headed monster, with the two heads not getting on very well together. Maybe that particular touch was not particularly Korean, but the music certainly was, as were the shamanistic pigs heads on the altar; and the spirits whose masks made them invisible recalled the traditional talchum mask dance.

The masked dance of the spirits
The masked dance of the spirits

But the quota of Koreanness in the production is not what matters: what matters is whether the adaptation works as theatre, and that it certainly does. It also delivers what Master Oh hoped for in the press conference last week: in a play that is accessible to a youth audience he deals sensitively with the themes of vengeance and reconciliation, while introducing us to some of the treasures of Korea’s cultural heritage.

Oh Tae-seok’s adaptation of The Tempest runs at the King’s Theatre until 16 August 2011. Full details on the International Festival website. Images courtesy of Mokhwa Repertory Company.

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