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Festival visit: Gaksi, Mago

In Korean mytholoogy there is a legendary grandmother figure, a giant goddess who created islands and arranged the mountains and the oceans in their proper positions. In Jeju Island, she is known as Seolmundae Halmang – Grandmother Seolmundae; elsewhere in Korea she is known as Mago. The stories about her are sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. In one tale she meets a sad end as she was cooking dinner for her many grandsons: she fell into the soup pot and drowned. In a more comic tale, she wants to come ashore from the ocean but her underwear is not big enough for her and she modestly stays in the sea.

A young Korean Earth Mother advertises Gaksi, Mago in the Royal Mile
A young Korean Earth Mother advertises Gaksi, Mago in the Royal Mile (Photo by Steven Gore. Link credit below)

This is the tragi-comic Earth Mother figure that appears in the production from Jeonju-based Kkachidong. But the central character, Gaksi, is a middle-aged woman who is ditched by her husband in favour of a younger woman.

The narrative is introduced by a decoratively-attired female folk singer, and then taken over by a male drummer. The performance is done partly by the actors themselves, and partly by puppets that they carry with them. As the audience, we are never quite sure what level of reality we are in. Not only can the action switch between human and puppet, but the narrator can participate as well. The drummer fancies himself as a playboy, and decides to act the part of Gaksi’s philandering husband, also operating a puppet in his own image.

Gaksi flies off to find Mago in the publicity leaflet for Gaksi, Mago
Gaksi flies off to find Mago in the publicity leaflet for Gaksi, Mago

Gaksi, in despair when her husband leaves her, decides to kill herself – but because throwing yourself off a building is rather difficult to do on stage, the Gaksi actress uses a puppet who climbs atop a cleverly painted cardboard box. At the last minute, the narrator intervenes and saves her life, and advises her on what to do next.

Of course, this is a Korean production, so the audience has to get involved as well – later in the production we have to dance with the actors, and to exhort each other to “become Mago” – the peace-inspiring Earth Mother. I sometimes find myself wishing that Korean performers didn’t come out into the audience to drag people on stage. I always make sure I’m sitting nowhere near the aisle for a Korean act, because I don’t like going on stage and making a fool of myself. But then, this is what they do in Korea, in a performance practice of audience participation which goes back for centuries, and they shouldn’t change things to accommodate a stuffy Western audience. After all, we are here to experience a different culture.

Gaksi sets off to find Mago
Gaksi sets off to find Mago

Stretching our relationship with reality further, the narrator advises Gaksi to seek the help of Mago. “How will I find her?” she asks. “This is a play. You can do anything,” comes the response. Her puppet climbs into a wicker basket and flies off in search of the goddess.

On the way, Gaksi comes across other suffering and oppressed women elsewhere in the world. Like Jasmine Gwangju, the production highlights the troubles in the Middle East – though Gaksi, Mago also focuses on the Palestinian / Israeli issue. The journey to seek Mago’s help thus becomes a campaign on behalf of women’s rights everywhere, and Mago a figure who can fight on behalf of oppressed women. What is not quite clear from the production is whether resolution will be by way of vengeance on those men who promote war and discrimination, or whether there is to be reconciliation.

Gaksi and her Middle Eastern friends travel home in a magic airship provided by Mago
Gaksi and her Middle Eastern friends travel home in a magic airship provided by Mago

The rather heavy message of the plot is lightened by the humour of the actors and the colourfulness of what you see on the stage in front of you. And, weaving the Mago legend into the narrative, the women seek to create a larger set of undergarments to enable Mago to present herself.

This is a production unlike your typical theatrical experience in the West. There is plenty to keep you entertained. On the afternoon I visited the audience was small but enthusiastic, and the energy of the actors certainly won them over.

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