An old play about war gets a real Korean face

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An old play about war gets a real Korean face

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The time is during the height of the Korean War. A small North Korean village is left destitute after being bombed. People are dying of hunger. Just outside the village, five French UN soldiers are lost in the woods, holding a 12-year-old North Korean child hostage until their rescuers arrive.
That’s the background for the play “Today or the Korean People,” by the French playwright Michel Vinaver. The play, which was written in 1955, was originally banned in France due to its critical look at the role of UN soldiers in the Korean War.
The ban has since been lifted, but by the time the play was performed, the conflict on the Korean peninsula had become the “Forgotten War.”
Marion Schoevaert, a French theater director residing in New York, however, said she thinks now is a good time for the play to be resurrected. She said she sees similarities between those who criticized the Korean War and those who criticize the war in Iraq.
She wanted the play to be performed again, though not in France, but in Korea, where the play has never been staged, even though the script has been translated into many languages, including Korean.
French directors, including Jean Marie Serreau in Paris and Roger Planchon in Lyon, staged the performance with Western actors who put on black wigs to play Korean roles. Ms. Schoevaert, however, said she thinks the once-controversial play, written by one of her favorite modern playwrights, could see a revival ― with a little help from a Korean theater company.
She brought the French script with her to Korea last year and found the Korean playwright Kim Kwang-lim, whom she now addresses as sabunim, Korean for “great mentor.” He introduced her to another young Korean director, who for the past few months has been helping her coach the 15 Korean actors who will perform in “Hanguk Saramdeul,” (The Koreans) her Korean-language version of the original French play.
“It’s a slow job,” Ms. Schoevaert said last week, sitting in the audience seat at Arungguji Theater in Daehangno, the epicenter of the theater explosion in Seoul. The 31-year-old director occasionally pointed ahead to the stage and cheered and waved at a group of Korean actors who were rehearsing for the show. “The play had to be looked at again from the Koreans’ point of view, and some lines in the script had to be rewritten.”
In the original script, for example, a description of a rural farmhouse had a corridor and a staircase leading to the second floor. A common Korean farmhouse would have had no such structure. Fortunately, she received permission from Michel Vinaver to make a few revisions in the script.
“Michel Vinaver’s original play reflected the French mentality in viewing Korea and its people,” she said. In Vinaver’s version, the play is a tragedy centering around traditional rituals ― burying and honoring the dead, cooking what to foreigners look like exotic meals and singing to chase evil spirits away.
“We can find in it echoes of the Korean people’s suffering, taken in a worldwide conflict,” Vinaver once wrote about the work.
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Ms. Schoevaert says she wishes to keep the rituals in the play but she was now more “curious how the Koreans will interpret and handle their own story.”
She is hesitant to make big changes, though. It can take her and her Korean counterpart, Byun Jung-joo, the theater director of the performance group Wuturi, up to 30 minutes to discuss whether they should change a single line.
“We would put the original French script in front of us along with an English text and a Korean one translated by Professor Ahn Chi-woon in 1991,” Mr. Byun said. “We would compare them and try to find the right Korean word for our play.”
So is Ms. Schoevaert fluent in Korean? Not exactly, though she said she had no problem with the language. The problem, she said, was more about how the Korean words sounded to her. The actors will speak their lines to a rhythm composed by a band of Korean traditional percussionists specifically to work with the text, a technique that the Wuturi group commonly uses in its own plays. Instead of Western brass or a string band that will play a melody as background music, traditional rhythms will express an actor’s emotions. When an actor is agitated, the percussion beat will speed up; when one has to talk slowly, so will the beat.
“I am very aware of the new sounds around me,” Ms. Schoevaert said. “I am trying to soak up the rhythms and the intonations like a sponge.”
The hardest part, she says, turned out to be the differences in work habits. In New York, she and her theatrical company worked no more than two hours a day. Even if they wanted to, it was nearly impossible because of the high cost they had to pay to use a studio. But here, she says, actors were patient enough to “work eight straight hours a day.”
“There is human contact in Korean theaters,” she said. “They practice together, they eat together and you feel a sense of belonging here.”
“In New York, I cast different people for different plays and the working time is always very concentrated,” she said. “It is efficient but I did not have a community. But here, everyone is dedicated to each other. They seem to know why they do theater. To Korean actors, theater is still a sacred thing.”
“I think a Western director and a Korean crew will make a good combination,” she said.
Mr. Byun said the play would not take sides or make political statements, but would simply look into how a small North Korean village and its people were changed forever by war and death.
“On stage, we will see a great American poster advertising ‘Be a Hero, Join The Army,’ when we are showing an American soldier dying, far away from home,” he said.


by Lee Min-a

“The Koreans” will be staged in Seongnam Art Center in November. In 2007, it is also scheduled for a tour in France and in the United States with subtitles. The producers say it will not be a historical play, since Korea remains in a fraternal deadlock.

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