Anarchic comedy showcases Korean theatrical traditions and retains spirit of the original
This article is from 2011.
Shakespeare’s swansong enjoys a unique status in the playwright’s canon. Part magical realist fantasy, part forerunner to the absurdist tragicomedy, part wry comment on the nature of playwriting itself, The Tempest floats outside of the classifications of the bard’s other works. In the hands of the Mokhwa Repertory Company, however, it’s something else again, a genuinely anarchic comedy that remains true to the spirit of the original while showcasing a number of Korea’s rich cultural and theatrical traditions.
Director Tae-Suk Oh’s adaptation dispenses with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter in favour of a sparer contemporary text, but one that brings out the musical rhythms of the Korean language. In an age when western Shakespearean actors strive to underplay there’s something refreshing about the large-eyed, precise physicality of the performances here, which has the effect of rendering the comedy broader and more absurd, but also transcends the language barrier (the supertitles, awkwardly placed around the stage, are frequently surplus to requirements).
Indeed, many of the pleasures of the production are non-verbal, from the moody soundtrack created by the small orchestra of strings, percussion and woodwind to the intermittent ritual dances and stylised masks and costumes. The opening storm is evoked through a combination of thundering drums and soaring sails.
Also enjoyable is the production’s irreverent approach to Shakespeare’s iconic characters. Caliban here is a two-headed monster whose component parts bicker endlessly and long to be set free from each other. Ferdinand is a bare-torsoed acrobat, Miranda feisty and spiky-haired. Ariel, often depicted as blandly aloof, is portrayed here as Prospero’s mischievous co-conspirator; the scene in which the spirit is finally set free is incredibly moving.
Yet, for all the company’s creation of a genuine sense of other-worldliness, the production is also notable for its lack of ostentation. There’s virtually no set, with the different parts of the island delineated by Kyung-Chun Lee and Aikawa Masaaki’s beautiful lighting design and a frugal use of props that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the austerity of the original Globe productions.
This lack of fussiness goes a long way to explaining the show’s appeal and focuses the attention on the performances, the music and dance elements, as well as the physical comedy that makes this one of the most laugh-out-loud funny shows you’re likely to see in Edinburgh this year.
King’s Theatre, 473 2000, until 16 Aug, 7.30pm, £10--£30.