A Midsummer Night’s Dream @ Barbican Theatre, London

cast list
Hyun-Seok Chang
Jung-Young Jeon
Young-Ho Kwon
Jin-Gon Kim
Cheong-Im Kang
Ji-Yeon Kim
Seong-Hwan Lee
Ji-Young Kim
Jun-Wan Kim
Hyun-Sook Ahn
Hae-Kyun Cheong
Sun-Hee Park
So-Young Park

directed by
Jung Ung Yang
This new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Korean theatre company Yohangza is a sensory feast, full of striking oriental make-up and costumes, percussive tribal music and stunning choreography. But while it is superficially striking, it has been hugely oversimplified and there is something crucially lacking at its core.

The games that the company have played with the text give little new insight to Shakespeare’s much loved comedy. Though the story of the four lovers remains the same, Oberon and Titania have switched roles, Puck has been split into twins and Bottom has become Amuji, a dithering, old country-woman. Some of this is very entertaining, but that’s all. Scratch the, admittedly sumptuous, surface and this is a rather basic staging that will leave more demanding theatergoers underwhelmed.

Having said that, I must admit that this show does have much to commend it in terms of its energy and theatrical ingenuity. This is especially the case in director Jung-Ung Yang’s choice to convey the magic of the Midsummer fairies by turning them into dokkebi – Korean goblins. To a backing of powerful percussion, the cast create something quite magical and delightful, singing and dancing and milking as much humour from the play as they can.

A good deal of this comes through the visual imagery of Puck, now the split personality of Duduri. The requisite mischievousness is certainly there but whilst the slapstick is amusing, ultimately it detracts from the complexity of Puck’s character. Sun-Hee Park as Titania is also very amusing with her constant tutting at the lovers’ follies and her own lover’s promiscuity; she plays the disapproving queen and wife with wit and flair.

It is also interesting to see how the love potion is used as an act of female revenge in this production, with Hae-Kyun Cheong as Oberon falling in love with the pig-headed (literally) Amuji.

The four lovers together share some great comic moments. The performers successfully convey the chaotic confusion and frustration caused by Puck’s mischief and, in particular, Ji-Young Kim excels as Hermia – or Byeok in the Korean version. Being small and fiery tempered, she gets some big laughs, and her performance brought to mind another of Shakespeare’s heroines, Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. However, the four fail to convey the lovers’ growing desperation or the depth of Byeok and Hang’s love. There is just not enough time or opportunity to develop the characters or relationships fully.

Throughout the production I kept wishing I could have had the opportunity to see an original Korean narrative rather than see this familiar play given a series of superficial twists; that I could have seen something that would have allowed for a greater window into Korean culture. Yohangza’s show, though often inventive, was rather too long and, ultimately, not up to the Barbican’s usual high standards of staging innovative international theatre.

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