I’m not quite sure what it was about You For Me For You that had me squirming uncomfortably in my seat after a few minutes – a condition in which I stayed for the remainder of the play. I don’t think it was the subject matter: the tales of hardship in North Korea outside of Pyongyang and of escape to China are so familiar thanks to numerous defector testimonies (at a rough count we had five defector memoirs published in book form during 2015) that we are now immunised to them. It wasn’t the acting, and it certainly wasn’t the set – which was the standout feature of this 100-minute production. Flaps in the mirrored walls served as hospital bed, benches in a baseball stadium, immigration counter, hotdog stall and more, as well as reflecting the images projected onto the back wall as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope; and the exaggerated perspective made the figures at the back of the stage – usually threatening North Korean officials – intimidatingly large.
But the opening scenes felt laboured. The contorted dialogue as each sister repeatedly and self-sacrificially offered the single paltry spoonful of gruel to the other outstayed its welcome long before we saw the back of it; the artificial speeches that doctor and patient had to declaim in order to demonstrate their commitment to the Juche system before dispensing a useless placebo were fine when repeated once, but as they came around the third time I felt somehow cheated. Maybe the message was that in a country where resources are so scarce the only thing to do is talk.
Things then speed up. One sister escapes from the isolationist country which claims to have nothing to envy in the rest of the world, but where you can’t get by without knowing the constantly-changing rules and without having money, and arrives in a country which is supposedly the envy of the world but where you can’t get by without knowing the rules, where immigrants are exploited, where everything costs you money, and where they call a tournament the “World Series” even though there aren’t any international competitors. Where the system to buy a hot dog seems every bit as complicated as the system needed to earn a travel permit in North Korea, and where the petty officials speak a gibberish that not even a native speaker can understand, let alone a foreigner.
You travel half way across the world and find that maybe things aren’t that much better for you there. But at least in New York the younger sister has the hope of meeting a life partner, of having children and grandchildren, of building up a famous food franchise, even though she might be traumatised at the range of choice available. The final scenes in the play depict another possible future facing one of the sisters: a life of loneliness in South Korea, where just like in New York the petty officials speak a language that is incomprehensible to a North Korean – reflecting the fact that the vocabulary for Northerners and Southerners has diverged markedly during the years that the peninsula has been divided.1
Perhaps reflecting the abnormality of life in North Korea, the play has its elements of fantasy. The Crossing to China is more than just a journey. It seems more like a God that demands a sacrifice. And the sacrifice is not just the money you have to pay to the people-smugglers: it’s the risk that you could lose a limb, or your life, as you cross the river. Twice the sisters try to escape across the border and twice a sacrifice is made to the Crossing which means that only one of them makes it. And yes, in the script, the Crossing is spelled with a capital “C” just as indicated by the people-smuggler through his dialogue.
Another fantasy element is the Well into which the elder sister somehow falls during the first attempted escape. As one might expect of a well in this part of the world, it is inhabited by a frog so that we recall the legend of the frog in the well who thought that his restricted world was a paradise. But this well also doubles as the rabbit-hole in Alice in Wonderland, enabling the elder sister to go on a quest in search of her young son, overcoming on the way all sorts of curious obstructions put in her path by the Juche system.
This section of the play felt the most rewarding as it explored the absurdities and dangers of life in the North Korean system, and showed off the mirrored set and video projections to best effect as the actors were surrounded by acres of Kimjongilia and a forest of trees which sprouted ears. Of course, this section was a sort of dream sequence, and the elder sister had to return to her grim reality at the bottom of the well near the mysterious and quixotic Crossing to embark on another journey.
The play ends in a bleak echo of its opening. At the start, the two sisters argue to avoid eating the meagre scrap of food they have; at the end, one sister mechanically chomps her way through the abundance available to her in her new life – but one in which she eats alone as she has been separated from her sibling. It’s not a play which sends you out into the world with a smile on your face – but then, there is often little to smile about with that country.
Mia Chung’s You For Me For You was at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, 3 December 2015 – Saturday 9 January 2016. All photos courtesy Royal Court Theatre via their Facebook page.
- You for Me for You: New drama examines why not every North Korean wants to escape the country’s brutal dictatorship, Holly Williams, Independent, 6 December 2015
- Strangely, if I remember right one of these final scenes was cut in the London performance.