Korean acts coming to the Fringe have often majored on the non-verbal: percussion, taekwondo, comedy, physical theatre, music and dance. Last year, with Othello – Two Men, we discovered that more traditional theatre, heavy on text, can work well despite the language barrier – provided surtitles are visible. This year the Korean contingent was bolder still: two monodramas, with the actors playing a number of roles and packing a lot of story into the compact time allocation permitted by a Fringe performance. In Like Fireworks, Like Butterflies the versatile actress Kim Kyung-min played a disillusioned version of herself; a famous dancer; and also, through the medium of puppetry, several other characters. And in A Drinker, I lost count of the number of roles played by the virtuoso actor Choi Sung-woong1. Most of them were drunks, though. Separately, a Korean American writer / director, Jung Han Kim, came with two American actors who shared the workload to perform a third monodrama, Perfection.
Like Fireworks, Like Butterflies
Fireworks followed the life story of dancer Choi Seunghee, who became known as Korea’s first modern dancer. She studied in Japan during the colonial period, taking menial jobs to fund herself and having to suffer abuse as a second-class citizen, as a Korean in Japan. But her talent was recognised, and she developed her own unique style of dance. Dance was her passion, but because of the turbulent times in which she lived her talent had to be pressed into service for purposes other than pure dance – firstly in morale-boosting performances for Imperial troops during the Pacific War, and then at the service of the North Korean state (her sponsor in the post liberation world was a socialist activist and hence it was natural that she ended up north of the border). There was a lot of story, a lot of incidents, to be packed in to 50 minutes, and it felt rushed even though the narrative was broken up with brief dance interludes: another 10 minutes would have made the pacing more relaxed. But it was an inspiring story of someone who wanted to follow her passion even in the most troubled of times.
A Drinker (술꾼), too, was set in troubled times – looking at the poverty and economic hardship after the war, and the darker side of the South Korea’s economic miracle. It too felt rushed, but that was more because of the language barrier than anything else. You wanted to keep your eyes on the actor himself because of his amazing performance, but there was always the need to keep glancing at the surtitles to make sure you had a vague idea of what his latest tirade was about. The play centred on the world of drunken business entertaining in room salons, among those who experienced post-war poverty. One scene was a flashback to the central character’s boyhood, when he turned up to work drunk because the only thing to eat at home were the lees stolen from the makkoli brewery next door. The angry and drunk ajosshi character will be familiar to anyone who has watched a few Korean movies, and it was a pure joy to see an experienced character actor pull out all the stops only a couple of feet away from you. Choi Sung-woong is chair of the Korean Actors Association and has a huge range of film, stage and TV roles in his resume.
As is to be expected with a Korean production, there was no fourth wall in this performance, with people dragged on stage to share a drink or to join the dance floor. We were all rewarded with shots of soju afterwards though.
Even though you did not speak the language, you could tell that the performance was funny. And although the surtitles were needed a lot of the time, you didn’t need the text to appreciate the pathetic attempts to hail a taxi outside the night club, or the drunken bravado in picking a fight with all comers. But despite there being a decent-sized Korean contingent in the audience there was not much laughter.
Unusually for a Korean drama, there was a happy ending as the tragic anti-hero gets an unexpected call from his long-lost love – an excuse to share a drink with the audience.
Of the two productions, I would return to A Drinker, to witness again the performance by Choi Sung-woong which was an absolute tour de force of acting, and to see if I get more of the story next time.
In Jung Han Kim’s intense but nevertheless amusing and uplifting drama a man who has six months left to live has to try to make sense of his existence.
“What would you do if you only had six months to live?” asks the director / writer Jung Han Kim. “What would you want to say to God? Is there a God? … What is love? What is perfection? Is God perfect? Is anything perfect? The play is not about getting or finding the exact answers, but about simply asking the questions so that we can learn to experience.”
Greg Szatkowski was alternately intimidating and pitiable as he wrestled with these complex questions. Here there was no language barrier (the text was English) but the nature of the material meant that there was no relaxation. The audience was made to work hard, but the actor worked harder, and it is a tribute to the team that although the audience felt relieved at the end it was because we had all been on a gruelling journey together and felt that maybe we had made a little bit more sense of our own lives.