‘Romeo and Juliet’ Korean style

(c) Rose Theatre Kingston, 2010

Romeo and Juliet, directed by Oh Tae-Suk, performed by Mokwha Repertory, Korea, at the Rose Theatre, Kingston: Saturday 24th July, 2010.

Oh Tae-Suk took us into Korea’s past to speak about its present in his revived production of Romeo and Juliet, although the mise-en-scene was ostensibly a Korean town long before the 1948 North/South divide.  The set presented a wooden courtyard with paper lanterns; music, traditional dancing and ritual were incorporated into the script; and the actors wore Hanbok (traditional dress), the older men in Korean kimono-style gowns and the women in long, loose dresses, gathered in under the bust.  However, the Montague and Capulet youths dressed like extras from a pop-culture pan-Asian martial arts movie, and added to the sense of time collision as their stylised fights wound down to a filmic slow mo.  Mixing of modes ran throughout:  costumes and props suggested a pre-industrial society, but when the Friar’s messenger was detained by a cholera outbreak, the anachronistic short-skirted nurse, the funeral photographs of the dead and the spraying of disinfectant dragged us into the mid twentieth century.  Likewise, low comedy and romance mixed easily with high tragedy.  This worked particularly well immediately after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, when the scene changed to Juliet walking into a billowing, cloudlike white silk sheet, that spread to the edges of the stage.  This gave a sense of the young virgin’s desires and expectations as her bed expanded to fill the world.  The sheets could simultaneously represent purity, sensuality and also possibly death, as in traditional Korean funerals mourners wore white hemp robes.  This was underscored when the nurse, previously a hilarious character, ran in bewailing the murder of Juliet’s cousin.  She was then overwhelmed by grief for the death of her own husband, also killed in this three-hundred year old feud, taking the audience with her to the depths of her despair.  When it was unlikely that there was still a dry eye in the house, however, she pulled out a bottle, took a long swig and announced, ‘Oo, I need a vodka!’.  In traditional Chinese drama this mode-mixing is because the culture demands that there should be no extremes, and that all should be balanced, which is why Chinese tragedies end happily (Zhang, 1996).  But here, in this Korean take, the comedy heightened the tragedy of the end: the audience that laughed its way through the first half wept through the second.

A couple of days later, I met for lunch with Seong-Kwan Cho, the Korean PhD student who had told me about this performance in the first place.  He explained that Korea had no tradition of any kind of formal theatre, only folk performances and Confucian ritual in court life. At the beginning of the 20th Century, as part of its modernisation strategy, Western-style spoken drama was imported, via Japan.  However, this drama was entirely comedic, with stronger similarities to Moliere than to Shakespeare (Cho, London: 26/07/2010).  Some London critics of the production’s first British performance at the Barbican in 2006 apparently found Oh’s production ‘too comic’ at the outset for a tragedy, but Seong-Kwan countered that this was part of the director’s vision.  He organised the director’s talk on 22nd July in which Oh had addressed this: Oh placed a strong emphasis on the childlike ‘playfulness’ inherent in ensemble acting and on the playfulness of youth.  I had noticed that a particular type of flat, oval basket was used throughout his production as a prop – sometimes as a basket, sometimes as a hat, sometimes as a boulder or bush to hide behind. ‘It’s interesting that you noticed that,’ said Seong-Kwan. ‘Everyone in Korea would recognise that basket – traditionally we use it every day until recent years, you know, to carry vegetable and so on, but it is also a very popular plaything for kids in the past.  And if a kid wets the bed in the night everyone will know, because the next day he has to wear this basket on his head!’ So the basket, it seems, signalled fun, youth and innocence to its Korean audience. ‘At his director’s talk,’ continued Seong-Kwan, ‘Oh  discussed why he chose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – after all, it is a play that bridges the generation gap  between old and young, but it also speaks to the Korean War which was caused by our older generation.  Even now the older generation are still trying to teach the younger generation to fear each other.’  

(c) National Archives and Records Administration

This tied in with my understanding of the play.  Although my knowledge of Korean culture and politics is limited, it was enough to generally make sense of the mise-en-scene and script adaptation.  For example, when the ineffectual Prince of Verona, wracked with self-blame, attempted to rein in his feuding subjects, he reminded them of a Korean saying, ‘A neighbour should be like a cousin’, underscoring kinship and unity.  However, the parents – especially the mothers – refused to obey, inciting the youth of their clans to further violence, leading  to the eventual destruction of both their households.  For Oh resisted any sense of reconciliation at the end of the tragedy.  The set collapsed around the piled up bodies of the entire cast.  His political message was further underscored when the cast took their curtain calls kneeling silently in the debris.

It was interesting to see in the programme that the company had put on another performance earlier in the week, My Love DMZ, which more overtly longed for reunification through an animal fairy tale.  The masks from this production were recycled for the masked ball scene in Romeo and Juliet.

See YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMjG8oxfqrU  for the 2010 trailer and http://www.barbican.org.uk/theatre/event-detail.asp?ID=4276 for images of 2006 production at the Barbican. More information on the Korean War is available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml

The Lonely Man

Linzhaohua_jpg_350x99999_q85On Tuesday 6th July, I met with my Chinese language partner, Xu Yuang, who has been helping me find articles in Chinese on Lin Zhaohua, as information in English is very limited.  In particular, I wanted to know about Lin’s background because, as with anyone of his generation, this is fundamental to understanding his or her work, particularly work of the eighties and early nineties.  The word ‘background’ in this context is politically loaded, of course.  Somebody’s class background in pre-Deng Communist China defined everything about them.  For example, Zhang Yimou, Chinese cinema’s internationally recognised auteur and mastermind of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, had the ‘wrong’ class background.  His father had been in the Nationalist army during the civil war before Liberation, making Zhang the son of a counter-revolutionary. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’, which had nothing to do with education in its traditional sense; in fact, it meant the opposite, and thousands of young would-be scholars and artists spent years as farm labourers instead… Chen Kaige, another Fifth Generation film director, became a Red Guard and persecuted his own father.  His film Farewell My Concubine was seen by many as his attempt at atonement.

What was Lin’s experience?  Now in his 70s, he will have lived through most of the tumultuous events of 20C China: Japanese occupation, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, the Communist Liberation, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Open Door Policy.  But how was he positioned within these?  Unfortunately, the information is scarce, even in Chinese: ‘It is difficult to find the complete Lin Zhaohua story, because he refuses to speak about it, or to give many interpretations for his work.  He often refuses to answer questions,’ said Xu.  ‘If you are lucky, he will be dead before you finish your PhD!’

Some of Xu’s investigations matched mine, but her own commentary on the facts gave it extra meaning.  She spread out her notes and references before me, indicating the characters, picking out for me key phrases.  I felt a little bit like Lin Shu, who translated his works of Shakespeare without reading English…

Lin Zhaohua was born in Tianjin, an important cultural and trade city not far from Beijing. (My family and I visited Tianjin in 2002.  It was winter, and it was so cold that the river had frozen solid.  Old men sat over little holes they had drilled in the ice, fishing.  We ate the famous ‘Dogs Wouldn’t Eat Them’ steamed buns  – well, the inauthentic vegetarian version – and wondered through the city’s traditional markets, recalling the short stories of Feng Jicai, one of just many of the Tianjin’s famous writers and artists.)

‘It says here that Lin Zhaohua is working class,’ said Xu.  ‘This is important, as it means that he is politically clean in these times [Mao’s era], and here it says that before he studied he worked in a very famous film production company as a recordist.’ The film company was called Ba Yi, literally Eight One. ‘You see, at that time everything has some political meaning.  These two numbers reference 1st August, the date of the birthday of the Communist Party.’ Later, Lin passed the examination to enter the Central Drama Academy (zhāng yāng xi ju xue yuan), where he studied directing, and he graduated in 1961. ‘After graduation, he was allocated to Ren Yi, which means ‘People’s Art’ – you weren’t free to choose your own jobs, you were just sent somewhere and told what to do.’ Ren Yi, or the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT), used him initially as a bit-part actor.  Again, Xu paused to point out a pair of Chinese characters, long tao.  ‘This is the Chinese term for a walk-on part: it means dragon cover, because the actor is just covered by the costume [like the dragon costume in the dragon dance] and has nothing to say!  For so many years, Lin Zhaohua is only allowed to be long tao… I think this must be because even when he was young he was too rebellious.  You know, he often says in interviews that he wants to be an “agent of change”, but in the Cultural Revolution he could have only been allowed to  walk-on in approved political dramas!  Can you imagine how he must feel then?’

Like me, Xu had also found an article looking at his role in pioneering the Little Theatre Movement in China in the eighties, after the death of Mao and the fall of the Gang of Four, as the Party began to loosen its grip on society and culture. Lin Zhaohua was finally allowed to begin directing, twenty years after he graduated.  His first play was Jue Dui Xing Hao in 1982. I think this is the play I read about and commented on in my conference paper, called Warning Signal in English, about the plight of unemployed youth in the emerging market economy. ‘Warning Signal […] grapples with social problems, but differs sharply from [other contemporary huaju] in that it offers no solutions […] This is a new departure in contemporary Chinese spoken drama […] quite startling for its originality and daring in the Chinese context,’ wrote Mackerras (1984:159).   ‘Little Theatre, xiao ju chang in Chinese, are small dramas, with a small audience: these can be against the common people’s taste, and also against the government,’ continued Xu.  ‘Lin Zhaohua, even though he admits he makes commercial theatre, it seems he really hates commercialism.  Look, here I found some information on his favourite foods, tomato and cucumber.  This is the food of a man who lives simply.’

When we moved onto his approach to theatre, he appears not to be so simple, however. ‘This is very difficult to translate!’ laughed Xu.  Lin Zhaohua mostly adapts classic, often foreign texts, such as those by Chekov or Shakespeare.  ‘Here he says that strictly speaking there is no Chinese drama other than traditional forms such as Beijing Opera, so that is why he uses adapatation: as a framework to express his own ideas.  He manipulates the stories and characters in order to create a new Chinese drama.’  In another place he comments that ‘Today I do Shakespeare, but I do not exactly serve him.’ When performing classic dramas, he says you must ‘Indulge in it, but at the same time you are an observer, not totally in it, an outsider.’  He asks his actors ‘do not totally be in the character, but keep their own identity.’ In traditional Chinese drama, actors are trained to play specific roles, ‘but he wants his actors to be like those performers who can change their roles – change their identities.’ However, if people ask him to interpret his plays, ‘he just tells the interviewers to go away and think for themselves.  You can tell by reading the articles that he is a difficult man to talk to,’ said Xu. ‘The interviewers must feel very frustrated, but he is also the most important innovator in the theatre in China.’ She paused, screwing her face up at a page of characters.  ‘I really feel the interviewers are having a hard time to understand him – he is not intelligible.  He doesn’t try to be intelligible,’ said Xu.  ‘I think he is a man who enjoys being lonely.’

The Hamletmachine and Polski Hamlet

Ophelia (c) Teatr Polski Wroclaw

A more formal review by me of this production is published in the journal Shakespeare, Volume 8, Issue 4, 2012 available by clicking here

I’ve just read Heiner Müller’s The Hamletmachine (1977, translated by Dennis Redmond, 2001) and realised that it was not just Titus Andronicus that had informed Monika Pęcikiewicz’s Hamlet (Polski Theatre: see post for 3 May 2010).

‘I am Ophelia.  She who the river could not hold […] The woman with the slashed arteries’ (Müller trans Redmond, 2001:3)

She is a soldier, a terrorist, a revenger.

‘Yesterday I stopped killing myself. […]  With my bleeding hands I tear the photographs of the men who I loved and who used me on the Bed on the Table on the Chair on the Floor […] I go onto the street, clothed in my blood’ (Müller, translated by Redmond, 2001:3)

She is Electra.

But whose Electra?  The Electra whose identity was usurped by Freud? The Electra who continues to be silenced and abused, not just by men but by women who think that little girls ask for it? That little girls secretly want it?

‘Girl children have deep, subconscious sexual feelings for their fathers,’ the psychotherapist said, perpetuating myths in that room full of vulnerable people.

‘He protected you from your mother, so you paid him off by letting him touch you,’ she said.

‘You protected him,’ she said.

Pęcikiewicz’s Polish Ophelia wasn’t having that crap either, as she gloated at the horror she evoked in Gertrude the collaborator, as she forced her to confront her part in her pain.

‘Here speaks Electra,’ said Müller’s Ophelia. ‘In the Names of the Victims […] Long live hate, loathing, rebellion, death.  When she walks through your bedroom with butcher’s knives, you’ll know the truth’ (8).

In Pęcikiewicz’s Hamlet, it was Shakespeare’s Ophelia who ran off the stage during the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene, but it was Müller’s Ophelia who came back on.