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Camden People's Theatre, London

Andrew Field
posted 17 July 2007

Since September of last year the plush grandeur of the Apollo Victoria has been home to the spectacular Broadway musical Wicked, packing audiences in at £45 a ticket to see the latest big-budget re-imagining of L Frank Baum’s landmark piece of American mythology, The Wizard of Oz. Three tube stops and several million pounds away, the Camden People’s Theatre is the modest venue for the UK premier of Korean writer Oh Tae-Suk’s poignant, delicate play Bicycle.

I make this comparison not as an easy juxtaposition of prince and pauper, the velveteen opulence of the West End and the leaky tattered black boxes of the fringe. Both serve different audiences and different purposes. Instead, there is something more interesting going on in the comparison of these two twentieth century fables. The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, made into a movie in 1939 and growing in popularity ever since, seems in some ways to define a century in which we found ourselves ever more saturated by Americana. There must be few people left, in this country at least, who can’t hum a few bars or who wouldn’t recognise that yellow brick road, snaking off into the distance.

That was the first thing that came into my mind when I walked into the CPT’s tattered studio space. Eun-Ju Cong’s simple, effective set is a long meandering white path, rising and disappearing off into the distance. This familiarity is quickly punctured however by the recorded sound a series of seemingly unintelligible words, chanted in a Korean accent, echoing across the room. As with Ben Yeoh’s recent translation of a Japanese Noh play at the Gate theatre, we are confronted by our unfamiliarity with a language, a culture, a history. The programme informs us that Oh Tae-Suk, or Master Oh as he is known, is Korea’s leading playwright and that Bicycle is generally considered one of his masterpieces. Yet here is its UK debut, some 24 years after it was written, tucked away in a small corner of North London.

And even when it does get an airing, here am I hitching it to one of America’s most popular cultural icons. But like Baum’s story, Bicycle is a mythical journey in search of home, upon which the hero encounters a series of strange and wonderful characters before the whole thing ends up back where it started. However, unlike the Technicolor jollity and the safe return to Kansas of the American fable, Master Oh’s beautifully crafted play is haunted by mutilation, disease, death, war, hunger and genocide; what director Min-Jae Kang refers to as a unique feeling of sorrow and regret that sits at the heart of the Korean condition.

Yun, a local civil servant, walks his bicycle home drunk, on the anniversary of an appalling atrocity committed in the village – this is based on a real event that took place in Master Oh’s hometown during the war, when over one hundred anti-communists were burnt alive inside a building by North Korean soldiers. It is this terrible crime that haunts the local landscape. A scar as a palpable as that which still divides Korea today. Around the memory of this atrocity the whole of the landscape seems to have withered; we meet disturbed children, a family of lepers, a soldier lamed on the way home from war, the ghost of an old man, all well played by Kang’s hard-working and committed company of actors. And when the story finally comes full circle, it is not with a reappearance of the home which is so longed for throughout the play, but with another burning building.

Kang capably handles Master Oh’s delicately contorted narrative structure, the story being told as a series of memories reported to a friend who now witnesses the events as if the experience of them is being passed on to her. Her tearful realisation of the true horror of this bruised community’s past is by the end very much shared by the audience. When those unintelligible sounds from the beginning are repeated, it was with lump in my throat that I realised they were the names of those slaughtered.

The whole company is to be praised for the effort of bringing this beautiful show to a London stage, no matter how small. It is a timely reminder of the consequences of careless war and the irreparable division of a country. When we eventually leave Iraq we will be able to forget, to go back to our own peaceful fairytales. For those who remain it is not so easy to escape the memory of acts cruelty, torture and murder. Written 30 years after the end of the war, and staged now another 20 years later, Bicycle affectingly demonstrates the haunting legacy of that conflict on the people of Korea. And for this reason alone, it is a piece of theatre that demands to be seen.

Till 29 July 2007

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