Saturday, December 02, 2006

Theatre Review : Romeo & Juliet - Mokhwa Repertory Company - Barbican Pit (dir Oh Tae-Suk 28/11/06)

Oh Tae-Suk, or Master Oh as he is known to Korean audiences, is the man who revolutionised Korean theatre both by modernising it through the influence of Brecht, and returning it to its roots through the utilisation of traditional Korean forms of drama and culture.

Oh takes Shakespeare's text and strips it to its essentials, leaving (in translation) simple but stark and beautiful phrases that propel the drama forward. Yet at the same time the play is given time to breathe, and there are frequent long scenes where the drama is slowly allowed to develop.

In the opening scene, the actors dressed in orange and green come onto a bare stage and perform a slow-motion Kendo-like dance with sticks. Slowly one realises that this is the Monagues and Capulets fighting. Everything is a riot of colour, slowed-down and stylised, with all dialogue directed at the audience, not at fellow characters.

Some set pieces are a special joy. The balcony scene is like no other, with the stage draped in a giant white silk sheet. Juliet coyly escapes Romeo's advances under the sheet, then Romeo rolls himself up in the sheet like a giant Caterpillar weaving his cocoon - a brilliant image and a bravura act of rolling.

Finally, death overcomes the star-crossed lovers, and they kill themselves on a blood-red silk sheet. Now, Shakespeare's happy-ever-after resolution between the families after their deaths has always seemed a bit trite to me. Oh however brings the tragedy to its proper conclusion in an epic wind-swept martial-arts finale.

It is difficult to evaluate performances when the acting is so stylised; however Kim Byung Cheol as Romeo radiated energy, whilst Kim Mun Jung as Juliet a simply beautiful, captivating stage presence.

Oh Tae-Suk says "Like the sky clears after rain, I hope that that seeing this play will make your insides glow." My insides are not just glowing - they are positively radiant. This was a stylish, satisfying, different production which genuinely succeeded in reshaping one's understanding of Shakespeare's drama.

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