Performed 8-11 September 2010 as part of the Kenneth Myer Asian Theatre Series at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Korean theatre company, Yoghanza, has devised a unique piece of theatre based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To quote from the program:
“this production… incorporates themes from Korean culture and folklore. The production also presents Korean equivalents of Shakespeare’s original characters.”
The production closely follows Shakespeare’s original plot (with only minor changes) and, if you are familiar with the play, it is easy to draw parallels between figures from Korean folklore (including a type of Korean fairy called a Dokkebi) and the original Shakespearean characters.
As readers of my blog will know, I watch a lot of Asian films – mostly (but not exclusively) martial arts films, mostly from Hong Kong but also from Korea, Japan and sometimes other parts of Asia as well. What fascinates me about martial arts films is not the actual violence (in fact, I hate violence) but the way film makers in this genre use the human body and assorted physical techniques as performative and narrative devices. The choreography and performance styles and techniques of good martial arts performers and filmmakers often strike me as being very theatrical – more like dance than real violence (even at its goriest). I chose to go and see Yoghanza as I was curious to see how this company would draw on its national culture and performance traditions to present a version of Shakespeare’s play. As it turns out, as a lover of dance and physical theatre I was in for a treat. Obviously, Shakespeare is famous for his glorious poetry and dialogue. Yoghanza takes quite a different tack in story telling. While there is a lot of use of subtitled dialogue, Yoghanza’s performance / story telling style also relies very heavily on physical theatre, dance and music. The actors dance virtually the whole time they are on stage. As well as performing dance pieces, even when they are ‘acting’ their exaggerated gestures and body positions have been meticulously choreographed and carefully staged. As with the best martial arts movies, this is theatre making that shows deep understanding as to how to use the craft of choreography and physical performance to vividly define character, evoke atmosphere and explicate narrative.
The performers in this company are a multi talented lot – as well as executing detailed and energetic choreography with precision, athleticism and no little grace, they also show impressive vocal skills in their singing and declaiming of the text. The music is mostly based on Korean percussion. Some is recorded live, but some is also played live on stage by the performers.
The set and costuming supports the production very well. The performers wear costumes based on traditional Korean design, mostly white but with some bold splashes of colour featured to help define character. The make up of the fairies is white face with the features marked out in bright colours. The set is a simple open courtyard, with the audience able to see the top of a bamboo forest showing over the back wall. In keeping with Shakespearean (and, who knows, maybe Korean?) tradition, the performance space is mutable. The audience relies on the actors performances to know whether a scene has shifted to a different locale or not. Thanks to the clarity of the directing and performances this is never confusing.
This is a dynamic, high energy production that cracks along at an entertaining pace. Yang Jung-Ung’s direction ensures that the story is told with focus and discipline, and the highly wrought choreography and performers’ dynamism means that there is never a wasted image on stage during the play. Yoghanza imbue this production with lots of earthy humour and a huge sense of fun. At the end of their performance they had to take numerous curtain calls and received a standing ovation. One woman sitting near me suddenly announced “That was joyous!” as we were all getting ready to leave. I can only agree.