Tuesday 17 March 2009

Indomitably and restlessly guilty

This Isn't Romance, Soho Theatre, London

In his Guardian review of This Isn’t Romance, Michael Billington points out that ‘sibling incest is a dramatic subject as old as the hills’; looking at the latest theatre productions in the UK, one gets the clear feeling that it is also having a lively comeback, and that right now it is an extremely fashionable dramatic subject. The National Theatre alone staged three plays that mentioned incest in the last couple of months (and that’s not counting Frank McGuinness’ new version of Sophocles’ Oedipus). But obviously theatre does not exist in a vacuum, and its present interest in sexual attraction and/or relationships between relatives reflects a general growing concern that has recently found expression in many arts and media. In the age of sexual liberation and of sperm-donation, the issue of ‘genetic sexual attraction’ is going to produce a more and more urgent (and probably painful) debate, as one study indicates that ‘50% of reunions between siblings, or parents and offspring, separated at birth result in obsessive emotions’.

In-Sook Chappell’s first play This Isn’t Romance, which won the Verity Bargate Award 2007, is very much a play about incest, but also, at least in intention, a reflection on separation, identity, and the crippling loss of it resulting from growing up as a foreigner, and yet also eventually becoming one in your own culture. Protagonist Miso Blake was born in Korea, but she grew up in Southend-on-sea, adopted as a child by an older couple; now 32, she travels back to Seoul to find the younger brother she abandoned at a street corner 25 years before. She arrives there and on the stage as an elegant, fashionable ex-model, apparently in control, but it will not be long before she reveals the profound pain and resentment that will, by the end of the night, bring her to an almost literal self-effacement. Miso and her brother, Han Som Kim, immediately fall desperately and agonisingly in love, recognising themselves in the other: ‘You are me’, they both keep repeating, and ‘I look in the mirror at myself and I see you’ – also, presumably, as a way of putting the accent on what is often adduced as the basis of sexual attraction between siblings. As Miso tries to make it up to Han Som for what she did, to ‘save’ him, she bumps into the new faces of Western colonisation: American fashionista Naomi, who refuses her a modeling job, and lewd, English hotel-owner Jack Cash (yes, really), to whom she offers herself in the frantic quest for money that moves the plot along. Desperation brews and ultimately explodes.

This is most definitely not romance, nor is it ‘sexy’, as the play’s director, Lisa Goldman (who is also Soho Theatre’s Artistic Director) had defined it in the e-trailer; it is, rather, a bit obscene and pornographic – which is not meant as a negative criticism, but rather as a specification that not much is left to imagination or interpretation when you stage a five-minute cunnilingus in a restaurant, followed by the same man bumping the woman while he gorges some oysters. Indeed, obscenity fits the kind of heightened, violent and heated atmosphere of the text much better than sexiness would have. This makes it all the more regrettable that in spite of all the boldness and explicitness of the rest of the evening, either the writer or the director chose to censor the only sexual act that would have been worth seeing staged, that is, the first encounter between Miso and Han Som, opting instead for a definitely more lyrical, but also less brave screen projection.

There are some other problems, as well; in particular, many question are left hanging: why did Miso abandon her brother? Why did she wait so long before coming back to look for him? Was she just taken away or was she legally adopted – and if the latter, was it so easy to do so without realising she had a brother? There are frequent suggestions that South Korea is a heaven for sexual tourists, with vending machines selling teenage girls’ knickers, but we could also be talking about many other Asian countries and you would not know the difference. Billington writes that the author ‘conveys the contradictions of South Korea’s beauty-worshipping society where botox coexists with Buddhism’ – actually, this is, almost to the letter, something Naomi tells Miso, but from the fact that one person on the stage mentions the existence of a particular issue once does not follow in any way that the play investigates such issue, as, indeed, this one does not.

Most importantly, for a work which is really one long, almost unsuspended dramatic climax, dialogue is marred by the repeated and regular flowering of clichés that keep interrupting the flow of words, and poking the audience in the ribs. Lines like ‘I am a man. Men are not monogamous’, and its correspondent ‘You’re a woman, of course you do [like games]’ are as annoying as much as gratuitous to the economy of the action. Others, like Miso’s explanation to her brother ‘It is inevitable because of our story’, pronounced in between kisses, sound like unnecessary live commentary.

Nonetheless, the production does have several good moments. One of the most interesting ideas is the indication that Miso’s lust for her brother is, more than anything else, a result of her love-hate relationship with her own Korean identity: the very same identity that pulls her to him and that she wants to erase in order to be able to be with him. Jennifer Lim is excellent as Miso, indomitably and restlessly guilty, insecure and yet determined to the point of being scary – in fact, she ends up terrifying Mr Cash from sleeping with her – and in spite of the occasionally cringeworthy lines she is fed: I do not doubt the power of genetic sexual attraction, but it does sound a bit forced when, having talked with her newly-found brother for less than an hour, she is already telling him ‘I can feel you pushing up inside me’ (in a very unmistakable sense). Mo Zainal is thoroughly convincing as her highly physical and tormented brother, and Elizabeth Tan is delightful as kitty-waitress by day and bunny-stripper by night. Jack Cash comes across as satisfyingly sleazy, thanks to Matthew Marsh’s scenery-chewing performance, abounding in the kind of swinging, almost camp swaying movements that, in 2009, seem to only really work on Kevin Spacey.

While incest is not a new or unusual dramatic subject, the additional significance here is given by its entwinement with larger questions, especially those of cultural belonging (particularly experienced through the forced adoption of another language, something that Miso comes back to several times) and Western paternalism in exploiting Asian countries. These are complex and hurtful problems, and This Isn’t Romance is an admirable attempt at combining them; what fails the text (and the audience) is its recurrence to lazy aphorisms that, in the shouted context of a feverish production, sound all the louder.


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