The Artistic Beat of 'Drums' Emanates From Across Asia

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The Artistic Beat of 'Drums' Emanates From Across Asia

It's rare that you get a chance to enjoy an ambitious play, and rarer still these days to see a masterful display of Eastern-style puppetry. But the Paris theater production company Theatre du Soleil has combined both in "Drums on the Dike." The troupe will perform the play from Friday through Wednesday at a special outdoor stage of the National Theater of Korea, which is located at the foot of Seoul's Mount Namsan.

This production of "Drums" is directed by the highly-reputed Ariane Mnouchkine, who has been working with the Paris troupe for decades. The work is considered a postmodern masterpiece for its melding of Oriental traditions with Western dramaturgy. Indeed, it is an eclectic combination of drama, music, Japanese puppetry and dance.

On the surface, with its grounding in the striking bunraku Japanese puppet style, "Drums" may seem too exclusively Japanese for Koreans' tastes. But on a deeper level, the play contains traditional aesthetics from many other Asian cultures.

This writer saw "Drums" last month at Tokyo's New National Theater. What follows is an overview of the work based on my impressions.

The play is set about 1,000 years ago in a small country in what is now China. The precise time and place are left unspecified by the writer, Helene Cixou. Presumably, a millennium is sufficient to achieve a return to the general genesis of Oriental theatric performances.

The capital of the small country is divided by a river; to the north are the houses, farms and workshops of the less privileged, while the southern part houses the royal and wealthy classes. A crisis rears up when a respected fortune teller prophesies that the river will soon flood catastrophically due to the rich's reckless felling of trees on the nearby mountains. The ruler of the country, Lord Khang, is forced to dismantle one of the river's two embankments, or essentially decide which side of the town to spare.

The story revolves around the conflict between the classes, which with few exceptions put their own interests first to avoid sure ruin. It also confronts the universal themes of good versus evil and the need to respect the environment. The finale is quite spectacular, as tons of water cascade across the stage, destroying part of the town and bringing the human drama to an intense climax.

Bunraku is the major inspiration for the style of "Drums." The Japanese art form, which originated in Osaka more than 300 years ago, has co-opted many other Oriental art themes over its history, however. The puppet shows were originally staged by the Osakans to express the frustration of living under oppressive rulers. One intrinsic analogy was that puppets manipulated by humans were akin to commoners at the mercy of the ruling classes.

In "Drums," each actor is dressed as a puppet and is controlled by two or three pseudo puppeteers, who are completely shrouded in black to make them almost invisible. The effect corresponds well with the lives of the townspeople, whose fates are in the hands of the authoritarian Lord Khang.

But the play's novel use of bunraku does not dominate the style of this production. In fact, a marvelous harmony is achieved by the use of various musical instruments and the wide array of costumes and colors. Including in the musical arrangement is a four-man group of Korean percussionists playing the samul, or Korean drums.

By knitting so many artistic themes and forms together, "Drums" is, in short, a depiction of globalism.

For more information, visit the Web site at or call 02-2274-3507.

by Jung Jae-wal

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