Feature: Performing Arts Festival, Seoul, South Korea

Cultural explosion:

Why go to the theatre during a nuclear crisis? Mark Brown found out at a South Korean festival:

The South Korean soldiers at the army checkpoint on Kanghwa Island look suitably bemused. Less than two weeks after the claimed nuclear test by North Korea’s “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, they are faced, not with the massed ranks of the Stalinist state’s million-strong army, but with two busloads of theatre critics from countries as diverse as Iran, Canada and Romania.

Faces painted in black and green camouflage, the soldiers, like all their comrades on duty in this border region, are in a state of permanent battle-readiness. This is not a response to Chairman Kim’s recent flexing of military muscle, however; it has been like this ever since the uneasy truce between the two halves of Korea was declared in 1953.

We delegates to the 50th anniversary congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics and the Seoul Performing Arts Festival are on a day trip to Kanghwa’s shaman temple. The driver of the first bus thinks, mistakenly, that the temple is beyond the first of the three checkpoints that one must pass through to reach the 4km-wide demilitarised zone that divides South from North Korea. Five minutes later, the driver’s error having been discovered, we’re passing back through the checkpoint. The young soldiers wave us through with tired resignation.

As we leave the militarised area, we look across the lush, verdant mountains of what would have been known as central Korea, had history not intervened so brutally. Our brief encounter with the peninsula’s belligerent peace is marginally less surreal than our being here at all. What the hell are we – journalists and academic theatre critics from around the globe – doing here, watching plays in Seoul theatres while Condoleezza Rice and John Prescott fly in to discuss the nuclear crisis? The phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” springs to mind.

Our host, Professor Yun-Cheol Kim, president of the Korean Association of Theatre Critics, is impressed that we have come – although he is too diplomatic to say whether he considers it bravery or foolhardiness. “I was embarrassed that, just a week before our congress, there was a nuclear test in North Korea,” he says. “I was worried that people might not want to come; but most of them came. The nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea is not taken very seriously in the world. People are joking about it.”

Although many people around the globe laughed off Pyongyang’s test because of its apparently small impact, in South Korea it was considered simply the latest in a long tedious catalogue of provocations. “We have been threatened by North Korea so frequently, with such extreme hostility and propaganda, that we are numb to that kind of bluffing,” explains the professor. “It is too often, and always too strong. We don’t pay much attention to it.”

At the festival itself, it is Korea’s turbulent history, rather than current events, which predominates. From the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, to Japanese occupation in the early 20th, and the disastrous consequences of the 1950-53 war, one is reminded constantly that Korea, like Afghanistan, is a nation cursed by geography. For ever in the path of major powers with imperial ambitions, it has long been considered a battlefield and part of the spoils of war.

In Youn-Taek Lee’s extraordinary visual and musical extravaganza Three Beautiful Soulmates, a trio of priests choose different life paths as the Mongols attempt to shape Korea. As the performance is played out through traditional dance, song and mask rituals, the commentary upon more recent history is undeniably poignant.

Both The Fairy Inside the Wall (a South Korean version of a Japanese play based upon a Spanish civil war novel) and Kyunsugi, Kyunsugi’s Father consider the Korean civil war period and its desperate aftermath. In the first play, a former communist has to hide inside the wall of his South Korean home for fear that he will be killed by nationalists. In the second, the absent, feckless father is the product of a history of male absence caused by a series of wars; the mother is the stable heart of the Korean family.

There is a double pain in contemporary South Korean theatre; an anguish about the absence and suffering of their compatriots in the ruined North, and a mourning for the victims, many of them leftists, of the South’s right-wing military dictatorship, which fell in 1988. “Our memory of pain under the dictatorship, of censorship and political persecution, is strong,” says Professor Kim. “Also, our memory of the Korean war is still relevant, and painful to all of us.”

In fact, the capital, Seoul, with its 11 million inhabitants, ubiquitous, super-modern high-rise buildings, Starbucks and 24-hour Hyundai traffic jams, is a looking-glass world in which the city seems unreal, while the artifice of theatre restores reality to people’s lives.

In the foyer of the Arco Theatre, which is a beautiful and enormous modern playhouse, a largely young audience snaps up the last tickets for the Russian company Formalny Teatr’s elegiac visual poem Between Dog and Wolf. Many converse happily while wearing their anti-pollution masks (Jack Straw would hate it here). The theatre offers the people of Seoul a sense of life and history that is fast diminishing in the postmodern metropolis outside.


This article was originally published in the New Statesman on 20 November 2006


 © Mark Brown


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