When a play is put on for only one performance at the Fringe, you wonder what is going on. When it’s a Korean performance, and the date chosen is August 15th, National Liberation Day, the day on which Korea was freed from Japanese rule in 1945, the choice of “one day only” makes more sense. But you expect something pretty special.
This unique piece of Korean theatre centres on the story of young Gretchen. Just seven years old during the Japanese occupation of the state of Joseon she is caught up in a demonstration in her town for its liberation. Killed by a Japanese gunshot, the spirit of Gretchen begs with God to let her live again and she is given that chance.
Thus read the publicity in advance of the show. So you were expecting something in which a Japanese person probably wouldn’t want to watch. But you were possibly also expecting something that would make a Korean feel proud. Maybe something uplifting, even, giving hope for a better future.
Maybe that was the plan. But when the audience entered the theatre, they were greeted with a screen announcing that this was a trailer for a longer piece of Brechtian theatre. On stage was a singer playing a guitar, so you wondered if the vocal performance was the trailer, and you were going to get presented with something a bit meatier later on. But no, at the end of the show you were again presented with the screen telling that you had just seen a trailer.
And what did the trailer consist of? After the musical introduction, a little girl in hanbok comes on stage and asks us to turn off our mobile phones and not to take photographs. Then, in a reversal of common Korean theatrical practice, the enforced audience participation came near the beginning rather than at the end. The girl handed out dried seaweed to audience members who had a guess at how old she was and then danced on stage with her. Then came the main event.
A male actor, playing the part of a Japanese colonial overlord, ranted at you in Japanese. The girl waves a Korean flag, cried Long Live Korea!, and paid the price. There followed a series of brief scenes which reminded you that Korea has had a pretty wretched time for much of its recent history. And most of the scenes seemed to end up with the little girl being either traumatised or shot: after Japanese colonialism came the Korean War; then American neo-colonialism; Gwangju… there was a scene for each of them. And to add to that familiar litany was a scene which brought you bang up to date: the Sewol disaster, the story told in edited BBC news coverage.
This was a bizarre show to present to a paying audience. Yes, it had a very cute little girl as its central character, and the child did a very good job. But you need a bit more than that. What was the point of it all? I really don’t know. But if this was the trailer, I’ll be giving the main feature a miss.