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By Miriam Gillinson

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A white mist unfurls onstage. Two armies filter forward—it is hard to make them out through the fog—and begin to mime a battle sequence. They face the audience and are in perfect synch, their swords swooping in harmony. This ‘battle’—a serene, serenaded affair—is broken up by a tentative Prince of Verona, ‘Another brawl? You men, you beasts.’ It does not exactly scream conflict.

Director Oh Tae-Suk writes of his ‘Romeo and Juliet’: ‘The world has gone mad like an unbridled horse running wild. Suspicions, hatred, slander and screaming run rampant among generations…’ If only there had been a whisper of this vicious context in Tae-Suk’s production, but this is a predominantly light-hearted show. It is also surprisingly conflict-free—except for the final scene, which (somewhat incongruously) ratchets up the tension and depicts the two sides plunging straight back into battle. Most of the dance and battle sequences chime in harmony and the performances lack tension; the actors pluck out visual gags at will, but seem reluctant to dig deeper.

If this quest for the comic in Romeo and Juliet had been adopted with conviction, then perhaps this could have been a pleasingly jolting, defiantly flippant production. But there is little consistency here—and, with a drastically-cut and freely-adapted text (the play is performed in Korean with subtitles running above the stage), consistency of tone should have been this show’s backbone. Without this interpretative and atmospheric cohesion, there is little anchorage left. The piece feels erratic and frequently undoes itself, stumbling upon delightful sparks of comedy, but injecting it in strange places.

The direct performance style of the Mokwha Repertory Company also feels out of synch with the play. Take Romeo’s and Juliet’s first meeting. Following another harmonious dance—during which girls in alternately coloured skirts skip out their rainbow—the lovers glimpse each other across the dance floor. They act out their courtship kneeling down, one behind each other, both facing and addressing the audience. It is a mode of delivery that takes some adjusting to—but I do not think it is my lack of acclimatisation to foreign performance styles that is the problem here. The measured, distant mode of interaction does not suit the moment. I am sure this ‘unseeing’ delivery between two lovers could promote pathos—could magnify the impossibility of Romeo and Juliet seeing ‘eye to eye’—but, in this case, it dilutes their first encounter. How can we believe they love each other if they only have eyes (and beaming faces) for us?

On their wedding night, Romeo (Kim Joon Bum) and Juliet (Moon Hyun Jung) frolic on their gleaming white wedding sheets, stretched across the stage. There is a touching innocence to their aimless courtship. Romeo manages to get himself embroiled in the sheets and quickly cocoons himself completely. He looks not unlike a giant condom. It is a clever little moment, as Juliet delicately tries to rescue her hero and laughter bubbles through the audience. It takes Juliet nearly ten minutes to liberate her Romeo and yet, when Romeo finally emerges, Joon Bum jumps all over the audience’s relieved laughter. If one is going for hearty guffaws—especially at moments that do not automatically generate such emotion—then one has to encourage and incorporate these laughs into the show.

That Kin Joon Bum did not fully acknowledge this grandstanding moment suggests an actor unsure of the effect that he, or his production, is after. Cheo Eun A, as the nurse, is the one performer who seems sure of her role and its purpose. This is probably because her waddling, vodka-willing, capricious nurse is the only character in synch with the essence of this production—one that reaches out to its audience and makes it chuckle but does not, as the director intended, make one’s ‘inside glow’.


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