A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Yohangza Theatre Company, Dir. Jung Ung Yang, Globe Theatre, Tuesday 1 May 2012

Contrary to most recent performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is nothing dark or sinister or indeed that grown-up about the Yohangza Theatre Company’s version, directed by Jung Ung Yang: one imagines this would appeal as much to kids as to adults, which is apt given the dual nature of the play, but also given South Korean culture’s predilection for cuteness (Kawaii). Performed in a mixture of Korean theatre styles, including song, dance, mime, acrobatics and martial arts, the production was vibrant, energetic and immensely enjoyable, and the cast did a great job of overcoming the language barrier and forming an excellent rapport with the predominantly English-language speaking audience. Effectively conveying ideas, events and emotions through music and movement, costume and facial expressions (the surtitles were barely needed), the small, multi-skilled and super-fit cast performed a substantially pared-down version of the source material, focusing only on the plight of the four lovers and the fairy king and queen’s marital problems.

The use of some English words and phrases also helped forge a bond with the spectators, but why every time a word in English was used it was met with quite such laughter and applause is a mystery. Perhaps the overreaction revealed a desire for more points of commonality and glimpses of the familiar? The reference to ‘fish and chips’ and ‘mushy peas’, which showed the company catering to a distinctively English sense of humour, unsurprisingly caused the loudest laugh of the evening, and no doubt contributed to the popularity of this already likeable cast.

But where does Shakespeare fit into all of this? And did the play provide any fresh insights into our understanding of Dream?

In this simplified version of the play Yang seems to borrow as much from his own culture and folklore as he does from Shakespeare. One of the most interesting aspects is the switch in gender roles, with Oberon/Gabi being the one punished by Titania/Dot for his habitual womanising. But as refreshing as it was to see Oberon being humiliated and as tempting as it is to interpret this as a feminist ‘take’ on the play, the female Bottom figure, an old herb collector called Ajumi, was humiliated to an extent that the male Bottom rarely is. Small, coarse and dithering, Ajumi was transformed by the Dokkebi (Korean forest sprites or goblins) into a pig, bringing to mind the infamous Renaissance ‘freak’, Tannakin Skinker – although in Eastern cultures the pig (traditionally associated with an unruly woman) possesses more positive connotations. Ajumi is subject to repeated ridicule and mortification, and at one rather discomforting point she urinates at length, centre stage, then proceeds to smear her face with the liquid (Dokkebi are supposedly repelled by the smell). Indicative of the slightly-too-crude nature of the humour, this also seems to be pandering to the (again, particularly Renaissance) belief that women are incontinent – figuratively and literally. In fact, Yang’s production could be accused of reinforcing many misogynistic stereotypes, both Eastern and Western, including the shrewish, scolding wife. Yet it’s all handled with too light a touch to be ever regarded as offensive.

The typically rather nondescript lovers perhaps present a more progressive attitude towards gender. Dressed, at first, in primary colours – red, yellow, blue and green, which symbolise distinct personality traits – Hermia/Byock, Demetrius/Hang, Helena/Eeck and Lysander/Rue proceed to lose their individuality in the forest where they are now all attired in white, unisex outfits. This also, according to Korean culture, symbolises that they are at harmony with nature, and have reverted to a state of innocence. The loss of distinction between the almost identically dressed members of this quartet, who move in a beautifully synchronised fashion, perpetuates a collapse in gender difference.  The men are graceful, elegant and Rue even brandishes a fan, while the women are equally elegant but strong and assertive. Their freedom from the heavy, ornate makeup and costumes of the Dokkebi, interestingly, further signifies that they are perhaps less tradition-bound and more modern, liberated figures.

Another particularly interesting and wonderful aspect of this play is its splitting of the character Puck into the twin spirit Duduri, played by the mesmerising Jin Lee and Seong-Yong Han, both of whom arguably stole the show – and this was definitely more show, more spectacle, than narrative drama. Duduri, Dot’s naughty little brother, successfully embodied the comic, festive elements of Dream and played tricks on the audience as well as on members of the cast. Making full use of the playing space, the dual character made several ventures into the yard (I myself had the privilege/embarrassment of gaining its attentions) and often perched smugly on the upper stage, reflecting its puppeteer-like power to control and laugh at the fates of others. Evidence of how much the duo cast a spell over the audience was the never-ending curtain call and the long queue that formed in the foyer post-show for photographs with them. Maybe this signifies an attempt to capture the metatheatrical nature of the ‘original’, but it seemed to me that these actors clearly relished their roles and genuinely didn’t want to relinquish them. The audience seemed to agree. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen spectators leave in such high spirits.

This article can also be viewed on the Year of Shakespeare website.

Dr. Adele Lee
Lecturer in English
University of Greenwich, London