Intended to be a simple morality tale about respect for the dead and dying, as well as an exposition of Korean folk and shamanistic beliefs about burial customs and the afterlife, this ambitious production combines strong visuals and colourful costumes with storytelling that is an uncomfortable mixture of seriousness and slapstick. Sometimes it’s good to have a bit of light relief in a tale that is otherwise sombre, but with Kokdu the balance was not quite right, possibly because with the humourous scenes you knew what was going on, while most of the rest of the time you were struggling to comprehend what you were seeing. Somehow, if the whole thing is incomprehensible, as is sometimes the case with contemporary dance, you can sit back, go with the flow, and just enjoy the music and movement. But when you know the piece is trying to tell you a story, and the only parts you can understand are the less serious ones (which are probably the sections you least need to understand) you come away feeling less than satisfied.
While many other production teams provided leaflets to the audience as they queued to get in, to remind them what the show was about (many Fringe-goers pack their schedule so tightly that it’s good to be reminded what it is they are about to see), Kokdu failed to take advantage of this opportunity. If you knew a little about Korean culture, you might have heard about kokdu – the charming wooden figurines that line a person’s funeral bier – but that would not prepare you for what was to come.
The show, in fact, should have come with a parental warning. You normally expect Korean shows to be family friendly, but for a young child Kokdu’s opening could have been rather scary – lighting, sound effects of witches cackling, fiery shadow-puppetry and sinister masked dancers combined to create an atmosphere which would have been disturbing for younger audience members.
The synopsis, which I picked up on the way out of the show, reads as follows:
At the funeral of their father, two sons and a daughter gather and quarrel over dividing their father’s property irrespective of their severely ill mother. The Jeoseungsaja, the Korean grim reaper, comes to take their mother’s life and she dies alone. However, failing to enter the afterlife, her spirit wanders aimlessly crying “I’m hungry”.
There was sufficient Korean language dialogue in the show to merit the provision of English surtitles to help the audience understand what was going on. Even chapter headings would have been useful: this was a technique used by Monkey Dance to indicate the general gist of what was about to happen. It was helpful that the squabbling children used the English word “will” to indicate that all they were interested in was the money, but I assumed it was the mother’s money that they were after, though from the synopsis it seems that it was the father’s. From watching what was on stage it was impossible to infer that the father of the house had just died.
Even with the benefit of reading the synopsis after the show I still couldn’t figure out the point at which the old woman dies. At first I assumed that the initial scene represented her death, but maybe not. There was certainly a point at which she was finally put to rest: the point at which her children realised the error of their ways and through the agency of a shaman managed to send her safely to the next world.
As noted above, the physical humour seemed out of place. At one point the kokdu, while trying to teach the squabbling children a lesson, made them simulate incestuous sexual relations; at another point one of the spirits implied that someone in the audience had bad body odour. And the constant hawking and spitting by the mother seemed unnecessary (other than to have her bad habit thrown back at her when her daughter spits in her food. Nice).
All in all this was a show that was difficult to engage with. The atmosphere flitted between seriousness and base humour, there seemed to be little continuity to the music, and the production really only settled down towards the end as the mother found rest.
A visually impressive production, but I do wish they’d been a bit more helpful in letting us know what was going on.