“Would you like some complimentary tickets for a show I’m producing which is going to the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry? It’s by a Korean company.” This was the question asked of us by a friend who is the International Projects Producer at the Farnham Maltings Theatre in Surrey. Always happy to go to the theatre, and to experience something new and different, we said that we would love to have the tickets and would look forward to the performance.
The Farnham Maltings Theatre is currently involved in a year long exchange programme between the United Kingdom and South Korea, and this production is just one of a number of projects funded by the Arts Councils of the two countries, with the aim of encouraging “an exchange of practice, ideas and skills between the two countries with the ambition of creating long term, collaborative relationships between artists and communities around the world.”
With that knowledge we went along to the Arts Centre, on the campus of the University of Warwick last night with four friends, not quite knowing what to expect from the performance. A leaflet handed out as we entered the small studio theatre, gave us a synopsis of the story, and some words from the director about the play and the author Chin-O Yu, who apart from having a literary career, taught constitutional law in Korea during the Japanese occupation of that country, and eventually drafted the Constitution of the Republic of Korea. He wrote Factory Girls in 1931, and it was originally serialised in a newspaper, but was censored by the Japanese authorities.
The play itself is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, and follows a young eighteen year old girl from a working class family called Oksun, who has been working in a textile factory for three years, enduring hard work and oppression. The other girls are worried that their pay could be cut again even though they are working in these harsh conditions. One day Oksun is given a bonus, and ordered by the foreman to spy on her friends, whom they suspect of rallying the workers. Oksun discovers that the other girls are discussing poverty, recession and strikes. What she hears, and the events which follow make Oksun decide that the time has come to find her voice. Will she tell her Japanese boss?
What I have not told you so far is that all of this is spoken in Korean and Japanese! Happily for us, there were English surtitles, digitally displayed above the acting space. But this was a different kind of acting, it was not just dialogue, but also narrative description spoken by the actors, describing others, or even describing themselves, their actions and their feelings. The spoken word was combined with wonderful dance, almost balletic in nature, and very slow intricate movement. Added to this the sound effects of the factory, and the workers at their lunch breaks, the knocking on doors and so on, were all made by the actors. This was indeed a very different kind of theatre, but the combination of all of these elements brought Oksun’s story to life in a fascinating way.
I had assumed that the four actors were all female, and when they first appeared all wearing the same style dress and woollen socks, I thought no more of it. Slowly it dawned on me that in fact there was only one female actor, the rest were all young men. The female played the part of Oksun, but the men played the parts of the other girls in the factory, and the foreman and the Japanese boss.
The performance only lasted just over an hour, but that was long enough for the story to be told, and long enough to divide one’s attention between the action on stage and the surtitles above it. However, it was a fascinating evening, and although the story was harrowing at times, and did not end happily, the telling of the story was beautifully portrayed in these different ways. The actors were superb, especially the young lady who played Oksun, and we were delighted to have this unique opportunity of seeing this company’s first UK performance. To our friend Hannah, who gave us the tickets, we say “well done and thank you very much!”