The History of Korean Western Theatre

What is Korean theatre? This is a trickier question than you might think, as The history of Korean Western theatre, a documentary theatre performance by South-Korean artist Jaha Koo, aptly demonstrates. I saw the piece live as part of the SPRING Performing Arts Festival, on 26 May at Theater Kikker in Utrecht.

But even the term ‘documentary theatre’ is something that should not be taken too literally, we are told by Cuckoo, Jaha Koo’s chirpy rice cooker. If you want a play-by-play history lesson, you’d be better off reading a book. And yes, you’ve read that right: one of the main actors, besides Jaha Koo, is a high-tech rice cooker named Cuckoo, who likes to sing and who has been happily travelling the world alongside Jaha Koo since 2017. The piece also features a huge origami toad, which starts to lead a life of its own later on in the performance. Both receive a mention in the credits.

But back to the history of Korean theatre. How do you date theatre, Cuckoo wants to know, in between recitals. Theatre must be almost as old as mankind itself. So how can it be that according to a large part of the Korean population, Korean theatre is only a little over a century old? (In 2008 Korea celebrated its centenary). The explanation is as simple as it is troubling: early in the 20th century the Korean government decided, heavily influenced by the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, that only western theatre was real theatre. Traditional, folkloric Korean pieces were deemed low and vulgar. Plays by Shakespeare and Sophocles, Arthur Miller and Molière – all Western dudes, most of whom have been dead for centuries, or more – came to form the canon.

Photo: Leontien Allemeersch

Interestingly, this is not the only play at SPRING that touches upon the shocking reframing of reality, something that is still happening in numerous countries around the world. In A Cow is a Cow is a Cow by Abhishek Thapar, Indian history has also been rewritten to neatly fit the current narrative surrounding the sacred cow.

In A History of Korean Western Theatre these chunks of exposition are loosely interweaved with Jaha Koo’s personal memories of his grandmother, who developed Alzheimer’s later in life. Without explicitly stating it, this grandmother comes to embody the traditional, the folkloric, the mythical. He remembers how she once implored Bibisae to take her philandering husband away from her. Bibisae is a mythic creature, half dragon, half bird, with a goblin face, and a recurring character in traditional Korean works, until Western theatre made him obsolete.

Everything is loosely connected, more a quirky stream-of-consciousness than a factual seminar. Jaha Koo was also responsible for the sound and video design which gives the performance a dreamlike, and, at times, nightmarish feel. The ending does feel a bit off, when Jaha Koo adopts a more passive and even defeatist attitude, while waxing nostalgic on the education he could have had if only Korea hadn’t succumbed to the siren call of the West. But overall the piece works, its many impressions lingering on long after the performance is over.

Photo: Leontien Allemeersch