After a break from the Fringe last year, LKL returned this year to see what was new. A lot of the companies are fringe regulars: Brush, Modl, Cho-in and Hooam have all come over before, and in fact Modl this year was celebrating its 30th birthday. But there were also new acts, including Korean Gipsy Sangjaru and Rootmerge. As always, the performances spanned a range of genres and styles. Some were focused purely on entertainment, but a significant number explored a much darker side of human nature and Korean society. We didn’t see any performances that were solely focused on Korean tradition, and in terms of shows looking at contemporary Korea there was little that embraced K-pop or the aspects of popular culture that might appeal to the teenage audience. Instead, the shows bravely presented a society of relentless pressure and stress (Spray) in which the individual is beset by impossible, overwhelming adversities (Goliath in the Water) and in which asylum seekers are threatened by sinister nationalists (Happy Prince). Sound heavy-going? Maybe, but in actuality highly rewarding. Additionally, two of the shows were adaptations of recent short stories by noted authors. I’m trying to think of another country in which literature can have such an immediate influence on the arts scene, and struggling.
In such grown-up company, Rootmerge’s Gukak Wears a New Flow felt a little out of place: a very much entry-level selection of music which included arrangements of Moon River and Milyang Arirang for 25-string gayageum, keyboard and bass, along with a picturesque solo bukchum to a prerecorded soundtrack. It may be that their programme was constrained by budget (they only had a run of three performances, while most of the other shows were there for the full three weeks). Video materials on the Fringe website indicated that with their larger ensemble Rootmerge can offer more ambitious fare, including modernised sanjo, so I’ll reserve final judgement until I can see the full group live.
By contrast, Korean Gipsy Sangjaru showed how traditional instruments can be combined with western ones to produce really exciting and innovative results, even with only three players: Kwon Hyo-chang (percussion), Nam Seong-hun (ajaeng) and Cho Sung-yun (guitar). Cho is also billed as the composer for the group. If he is responsible for all the music they perform, he is generous with his talents, because possibly the most substantial and innovative work in the set was for ajaeng and percussion alone, a striking piece that pushed the traditional instrument to its limits, and with its almost prog rock overtones1 lacked the gypsy / jazz / swing elements that infused much of the rest of the performance. The programme was inspired by (and largely created on) their 800km walk along the Camino de Santiago, and explored tradition and modernity while footage of their pilgrimage was projected on-screen along with avatars of the group as little Super Mario-style characters. Go see these guys: they’re good. (Correction: Since writing the above I have been in touch with Lee Ko eun, Korean Gipsy Sangjaru’s manager, who explains that while Cho Sung-yun composes much of the band’s music, this particular programme was more of a collaborative effort, with input from all the players.)
Brush Theatre’s Doodle Pop was the first show that we saw, and what a pleasant way to start the day it was. I had forgotten how good some of the Korean children’s shows are, and Brush are masters at the genre. The show revolves around drawing in marker pen on a giant whiteboard, telling a story and engaging with the audience. Of course, the advantage of a whiteboard over a paper backdrop that featured in one of their previous productions is that it’s much easier to erase and start again. And a new feature of this particular production was the clever video projection onto the screen that gave the illusion of the doodles coming to life. As with many Korean productions, the fourth wall is pierced, but the performers are sensitive enough to know when one particular child might not want to be engaged in the performance, and deftly switch their attention to another member of the audience. Altogether a delightful way to spend 45 minutes, even without a child.
In the two days we had in Edinburgh we managed to see eight of the ten Korean shows. We had to make some tough decisions. With four Korean shows scheduled for the mid-day time-slot (presumably because it’s less expensive because people are thinking about lunch at that time) we had to ditch two of them: so we never found out in person what Merry Wives of Seoul and Joyce were like (the latter got a good review from Pocket Size Theatre). Instead, we chose Gipsy Sangjaru and Goliath in the Water. Sangjaru easily sold itself to me as I’m always on the lookout for new fusion bands to keep abreast of where the music scene is heading, and in choosing the second performance I decided to be guided by the selection of AtoBiz, who brought over five productions (including this one) with funding from the Seoul Metropolitan government.
It’s sometimes difficult to know what to expect of a show from just the blurb on the Fringe website, because often the information provided by the performers is not terribly helpful. Fortunately a knowledgeable Korean friend was able to tell me that Modeun Company’s Goliath in the Water was based on a short story of the same name by Kim Aeran, which immediately increased my interest levels, and explained the mysterious text on the Fringe website referring to “Kim Elan’s infinite and powerful work”.2 Based on a sketchy outline from my friend, the story is dark, concerning the unequal battle between an old lady and a big urban redevelopment scheme. With the support of her family, the lady holds out against the development even when all her neighbours have moved out and all utilities have been cut off, though eventually her battle becomes a grisly life-and-death struggle against overflowing sewage and floodwater.
The dance adaptation by Kim Modeun has three dancers: Kim himself plus Moon Hyung-soo and Jeong Kyu-yeon. The tone of the work is suitably sombre and nightmarish, though poetic and heart-rending at the same time. The three dancers tentatively enter the performance space from different directions accompanied by an eerily-distorted soundtrack of Sugar Town by Nancy Sinatra. The dancers move like malfunctioning androids or marionettes, gradually making their way onto the stage as they awkwardly seem to greet individual members of the audience. Meanwhile the auditorium is filled with stage fog, and the haphazard domestic objects (table, chair, dustbin and the like) that were suspended from the rafters are winched upwards, giving everyone the feeling that we are being submerged.
There follows a sequence of struggles in which the three dancers strive against oppressive heat, torrential rain and howling wind, trying to support each other from being swept away. The introduction of the noise of pneumatic drills into the soundscape indicates that their struggles are against human as well as natural external forces. Finally, the female dancer is overwhelmed by a flood of empty plastic bottles. As audience, we too feel overwhelmed, exhausted, but also profoundly moved.
What do you expect when going to see a performance of Happy Prince? Well even though it’s a children’s story it’s not particularly cheery: acts of virtue and self-sacrifice don’t get rewarded in this world, but at least you get your reward in the next one. It’s a story which possibly suits Modl Theatre Company, who have recently introduced darker, adult themes into their work (eg, Girl in 2017). This particular production combined a narration of part of Oscar Wilde’s original fable, told in an enchantingly simple shadow-projection onto a screen, with a gritty real-life story in which a refugee sleeping in a cardboard box, a penniless songwriter and a homeless woman with a sick baby interact, sharing what scraps of comfort are available in their daily lives. It’s grim, but the message is that there can be humanity and elements of common decency in the most materially impoverished of existences.
One production where we knew what to expect was Hooam Theatre’s Black and White Tea Room: Counsellor. We saw a cut-down (20 minute) version of this intense two-man play a couple of years ago in a London showcase, and were keen to see the full (1 hour) version. In the last couple of years a major change has taken place: the play, written and directed by Cha Hyun-suk, has been translated into English and features Western actors. The scenario relates to a retired police interrogator who has become a counsellor, and his new client who is also a victim of his former interrogation techniques. The scenario is thus immediately relatable to current day Korea where activists in the 70s and 80s will have received precisely the forms of interrogation (and worse) outlined in the play. Locating the drama in an Anglophone world makes it more universal, and perhaps (given the fact that in this version of the drama the former victim is black and the former policeman is white) one is encouraged to think of South Africa as a hypothetical location. The cut-down version was super-tense, focusing mainly on themes of revenge and forgiveness. In the longer version there is more breathing space, and other themes can be explored, most notably that of trust, as the counsellor and the client try to find common ground.
Finally, Cho-in Theatre presented a pair of virtuoso performances by Lee Sang-hee. In Macbeth – a one-person show – she played the title role on a stage stripped of everything other than four blue boxes arranged in a square. Her role was a never ending journey from one box to the next as she pursued her destiny of greatness. Her conversations with Lady Macbeth were conversations with a finger-puppet she kept in her inside pocket; the encounter where Macbeth learns that “no man of woman born” could harm him was with a doll in a bright scarlet robe. This was a production that focused on Macbeth’s inner mind, and it is a tribute to the actor and director that one’s attention never flagged for the duration of the performance.
Saving the best till last, Cho-in Theatre’s Spray also starred Lee Sang-hee, as a manager in the shoe department of a Seoul department store. The production is a stage adaptation of a short story of the same name by Kim Kyung-uk, and follows the text closely, though perhaps introduces a greater emphasis on the stresses and pressures of contemporary Korean life: as the nameless central character endures his daily tedious commute to the store, daily news headlines pop up on the screen: each headline seems to relate to a suicide arising from stress or depression. Adding to the sense of pressure is the super-slick staging: an ever-moving series of panels on a grid of black squares, deftly manipulated by unseen actors, mimicking the opening of lift doors, the closing of the doors in a subway carriage, changing the scene from the interior of the shoe shop to the interior of the man’s tiny flat all to the relentless beat of a slick rhythmical soundtrack. This is a mechanistic world in which an individual is a tiny nameless cog in a brutal system, in which people live in anonymous apartments cheek by jowl with anonymous neighbours who keep annoying (and noisy) hours and keep annoying (and noisy) pets. A world in which a man in a shoe shop is brow-beaten by his customers having been brow-beaten by his bullying father all his life.
With that scenario, our poor shoe-shop man discovers an illicit joy: having mistakenly picked up a neighbour’s package from the apartment block’s reception desk, he gets guilty pleasure from opening the parcel to see what is inside (a bottle of deodorant spray, which comes in handy to address our hero’s stress-induced sweatiness). He seeks to repeat this pleasure by pilfering other packages from other towers in the apartment complex. This mini crime spree careers out of control in a zany but macabre sequence of events with tragic consequences. It’s another virtuoso performance by Lee Sang-hee, in a razor-sharp production that is respectful of the original text. In an interview for a Scottish outlet director Cheong-euy Park describes the show as “A trigonometry of noise, empathy and revenge”, and despite our neighbours’ noisiness we should welcome it as confirmation of their existence. Thankfully, Park also indicates that he’s planning on coming back to Edinburgh next year.
Rootmerge: Gukak Wears a New Flow
Korean Gipsy Sangjaru: Camino de Sangjaru
Brush: Doodle Pop
Modeun Company: Goliath in the Water
Modl Theatre: Happy Prince
Hooam Theatre: Black and White Tea Room: Counsellor
Cho-in Theatre: Macbeth
Cho-in Theatre: Spray
- Read Justin Woodruff’s translation of Kim Kyung-uk’s Spray in Asymptote Journal
- This Week Culture interviews Cheong-euy Park (Director, Spray, Macbeth)
All images courtesy the relevant companies.
- I am grateful to Henry Northmore in The List for nailing it with the prog rock comparison.
- How does one get “Elan” from “애란”?