Pericles, Yohangza, dir. Yang Jung-ung, TJ Towol theatre, Seoul Arts Centre, Korea. 23 November 2016, 3pm matinee.
Reviewed by Sarah Olive
I recently attended the Asian Shakespeare Association conference in Dehli, where the disoriented spectator was having a field day: the concept from theatre criticism, that is, rather than a person (though it arguably included most of the delegates). Christy Desmet’s plenary paper paraphrased thus Michael Dobson’s self-identifying as an ‘uninformed theatre-goer’ during his review of the Globe to Globe Festival’s Armenian King John (Bennett and Carson 190). I pondered the multivalent potential of the term, wondering how I might use it to make sense of my own recent experience of watching Pericles in Korean in Seoul.
On the surface, ‘disoriented’ refers to a sundering from one’s bearings. Historically (especially in terms of church-building), it might refer specifically to being severed from one’s sense of, particularly one’s ability to align with, the East. Skipping centuries forward to draw on the work of Edward Said, the term ‘disoriented’ might be made to represent specifically a cultural commentator’s or an artist’s separation from patronizing perceptions and depictions of Eastern societies, people and products; a divorce achieved through their realisation of a gap or mismatch between their notion of East and ‘true’ East, determined with reference to other specified (theoretical or creative) positions. Given Desmet’s plea for Shakespeare studies, particularly global performance studies, to welcome rather than turn away from the disoriented spectator, this review attempts to maximise my chances of being embraced therein: it bears witness to me engaging in all three disorientations outlined above.
In some senses, I had my bearings alright. I knew I was in Seoul. I even knew which side of the Han river I was on (the Southbank… ever was it thus). Hangel signs (many characters of which include distinctive roundels, making it easy for linguistic dunces like me to distinguish it from Chinese and Japanese writing systems), ticket, and programme all pointed to my Korean location. As did the Won with which I’d just paid the taxi driver. I also made assumptions about the East Asian-ness of my location. These were based on some of the characteristics of the unfamiliar tongue I heard in conversation around me and over the PA: though it could have been tongues, given my inability to identify anything other than the Korean words of greetings and thanks –‘anyoung haseyo’ and ‘kamsahamnida’. My assumptions were also based on the way in which the appearance of audience, cast, and front-of house fitted into my understanding of race. My fellow theatre-goers, the performers and theatre staff were Asian, I am Caucasian. Like most matinees I’ve experienced world-over, the audience was primarily school children, students and retirees: there is much that unites, rather than divides, arts experiences in a globalised era.
Once the performance began, however, I began to lose my sense of direction, not unpleasantly. I realised I was in what an Anglocentric tradition construes as the ‘far East’, specifically Korea, watching Korean actors performing a play set in multiple locations around the Middle East and Mediterranean (or ‘middle earth’), including the border of Turkey and Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and Greek islands. This melting point of the Mediterranean and Middle East staged in front of me was being filtered both through this Korean company’s lens of what it is to be on this cusp between Orient and Occident, and the writing of the yet more westerly-located Shakespeare. Shakespeare, and his sources before him, had looked to the East for the play’s inspiration, with little or no anticipation of how far East it would be performed. Yet the mental to-ing and fro-ing I was involuntarily undertaking as a spectator (which I have done my best to replicate and inflict on the reader) seems entirely appropriate to, and arguably enhanced my experience of, a play populated with so much tossing-about of characters; a play whose settings are so multifarious that the production used signs bearing place names (in English) to help us catch our bearings.
Other aspects of the production that pointed the audience to its location in this middle region (according to Western map projections) included: the interpolation of the Islamic greeting ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ into the script; the thick, desert-like carpet of sand that coated the thirty-five-metre-deep stage; palm trees; belly-dancing costumes, with the addition of further-orientalising fish-net tights, constructing the exotic sexuality of the ‘other’; Bangles’ choreography, in the form of ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ hands; coin-fringed headscarves; Zorba-esque strains picked out by the piano on stage; Roman statuary, in the form of Diana’s head lying toppled on the sand; a visual reference to Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, when Marina was offered up to Lysimachus, trussed up in a carpet (or, in this case, yoga mat); a mild obsession with scribbling equations, perhaps gesturing towards the debt the discipline owes to Arabic mathematics; and numerous caricatured warriors from the play’s and production’s regions (from a toreador to a Depp-a-like pirate, with a samurai thrown in for good measure), who competed in a visually-stunning, sand-burn inducing triathlon with Pericles for the hand in marriage of Simonedes’ daughter, Thaisa. A Sesame Street top draped over Pericles by the fishermen, who had discovered him on their shore, was blatantly American. However, it also connoted the magical phrase ‘Open Sesame’ from the Arabian Night’s Tales (a volume which always springs to mind for me when Marina orates to protect her virginity from the onslaught of would-be clients, Sheherazade-like). Thaisa, presumed dead during childbirth but roused from a comatose slumber, rose up in her sea-burial casket – here, the case of a double-bass – like Boticelli’s incarnation of Venus Anadyomene. This Korean production’s depictions of Pericles’ geographical setting seemed overwhelmingly familiar, if somewhat pantomime. I wondered to what extent they represented an internalisation of Western, orientalising attitudes towards this liminal region – not through its experiences of Japanese colonialism, or Chinese or Soviet interference in its affairs – but American and British.
Pantomime was also invoked to deal with the play’s parade of taboos – incest, cannibalism-inducing famine, sexual slavery. Colossal erections were gleefully constructed of hands and legs thrust between the aroused character’s legs. One cast member’s dwarfism was played for laughs in various ways: he was bestialised, infantilised, over-sexualised, and denied sexual agency in rapid succession, to hearty applause. The slapstick was most poignant and effective during the scene in which Marina’s assassin prepared to kill her as she stood on the prow of a boat declaiming to the sea: time and time again he drew his knife, only to sheath it again at lightning speed as she turned round to check gauge the impact of her speech, until eventually she caught him blade out, grabbed it in surprise, and wrangled with him, winning only to gasp (along with the assassin) at her cut hands. He, distraught, ripped off his top and bandaged her hands with it, contributing further to the already plentiful presence of naked, rippling torso the production offered up, the male actors’ bodies much more readily exposed to potential sexual objectification than this Marina. Additionally, there was a dark physical comedy when Marina fought off Lysimachus, throwing the roses that had been fastened between her teeth by her madam and pimp to silence her, and hence ‘win’ this client, and handfuls of sand at his groin, before in desperation miming with a red sash how she would hang herself rather than have sex with him.
Spatial disorientation was not the only kind of confusion flagged up to and reproduced for audiences by the production. Temporal was included too. The production revelled in staging ancientness alongside modernity: togas and the detritus of classical antiquity add plastic water bottles; drop, pop and lock dance sequences to chart-style Asian beats; Antiochus as WWF champion, bumped and ground on by his daughter; Lolita tutus for the girls of Tarsus; characters using mobile phones and kids’ laser guns; fright-wigged and lycra-clad whores; the on-stage keyboard and drum kit; neon lighting transforming Diana’s fallen head into one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits; a banana boat, quad-bike and paddling pool. This production was heavy on props, perhaps intended to fill the ginormous stage space, and the time taken by actors to traverse it. These further included copious time machines: clocks, sundials and stopwatches, the displays of some of which moved backwards and forwards. Time too was dislocated, or ‘out of joint’, to risk further disorientation by quoting another play altogether. In the programme, the actors playing Gower (Yoo In-chon), Pericles (Nam Yoon-ho) and Marina (Choi Woo-ri) clutch an hourglass in their headshots.
Other forms of mundane disorientation abounded in the performance. There was an actor, dressed in plain black clothes, seated on the side of the stage, by the production’s musicians, who spoke into a hand-held microphone. At first, I read him as some sort of second narrator (he and Gower were dressed in similar drab tones and, indeed, the latter actor morphed into the elder Pericles for the reunion scenes). In doing so, I momentarily confused Pericles with Troilus and Cressida, with its many commentators on the unfolding action: Thersites, Ulysses, and Pandarus. My second guess – that he was voicing Pericles’ lines – was right, if inexplicable to me. That is, until Korean colleagues, who had seen the production, explained that he had broken his foot during rehearsals (not surprising, given the physicality demanded of the production’s actors racing across and performing acrobatics on a treacherous thirty-five meter sand-swept stage). In retrospect, I think his accident and confinement to a wheelchair (which I only noticed, along with his strapped up leg, during the curtain call) was alluded to by the actor playing Gower, as he raked the sand during the pre-show which started the second half and stage hands with water tanks and hoses on their backs spayed down the sand. I heard the name ‘Pericles’ (sounded to rhyme not with ‘ease’, but ‘fez’, another cause of momentary discombobulation) and digs making the stage hands the butt of a joke from the actor playing Gower. From the audience came laughs, gasps, and claps, which I couldn’t understand at the time but read retrospectively as a teasing accusation from Gower about the cause of the injury and the audience’s shocked but admiring response to the situation. The actor playing Gower, Yoo In-chon, is locally well-known as a former minister of culture and was making his return to the stage after a ten-year hiatus, and as he chatted to the audience, asked them questions and waited for responses at the start of the second half, he exhibited a wonderful rapport with them and they a delight at basking in a sudden and unexpected intimacy with this idol. Beautiful, fleeting confusion was also created by sea storm scenes that used chairs held upside-down by actors mimicking sea-leg stumbling, or tables pushed and pummelled about by actors in blue raincoats, to create shipwrecks. Rain was conjured by water spray picked out against the dark backdrop by actors’ head torches. The audience’s eyes and ears were tricked into the perception of being submerged with Thaisa – and, later, Marina – by an actor’s slow, muscle-burning handstand, which dipped and rose to emulate a graceful dive, while the sound effects and speech alternated between underwater quiet and surface din.
A final reminder that I was viewing this production with strange eyes (in the sense of ‘extraneus’ or external) was my perception that the emotion of the separation and later reconciliation of father, mother and child was melodramatic and the scenes slightly too long spun-out. It dawned on me that the productions I have seen of Pericles in England all pace these scenes much faster: implicitly attributing them much less interest or relevance. However, I noticed that my feelings of tedium were out of place within the audience. As my ears registered the sound of sniffles around me in the house, it belatedly occurred to me that, in this moment, I was dwelling among Korean’s living memories and on-going experiences of physical division; cherished dreams of reunions, familial and national; something of the emotional disorientation and brand of sorrow unique to Koreans caused by sustained foreign invasions – ‘han’. On this trip to Korea, the only Shakespeare I saw (Pericles, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet) were plays dealing centrally with separation, reunification and reconciliation, perhaps suggesting a collective appetite for theatre exploring these themes.
Bennett, Susan and Christie Carson (2013). Shakespeare Beyond English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.