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.’
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