The Theatreguide.London Review
For Me For You
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Winter 2015-2016
A play by a North Korean woman living in America that is partly about a North Korean woman living in America is going to carry a lot of authority and authenticity.
But Mia Chung's writing, combined with the contributions of director Richard Twyman and designer Jon Bausor, makes for a theatrical experience that is too often opaque and elusive.
In a play that is more a string of striking images than a clear narrative, you will catch only occasional glimpses of the playwright's intentions, though the puzzle and mystification themselves may be enough to intrigue you.
Literally starving in North Korea's collapsing economy, two sisters manage to raise the money for a people-smuggler to get them out, though one doesn't make it.
Up to that point the play is relatively realistic in mode, but now it turns to a blend of dream, nightmare and Alice In Wonderland.
In what we are told is objectively only a couple of hours, the escapee makes it to America where she experiences two years' worth of life, being first confused and then thrilled by the land of plenty, free speech and unlimited ambition.
Meanwhile the sister left behind relives scenes from her past and possibly future, so that the two worlds and ways of life are seen side-by-side.
I think. I'm not absolutely sure I got any of that right, even after reading the published text. I am certain that I've made the play sound more clear and coherent than it actually is.
Meanwhile director and designer ignore the playwright's call for specific settings for each scene, and place the action in a tapering cylinder that is variously a deep well, several New York City locations, several more unspecified places, and a kind of flashing-light time tunnel resembling the title sequence of Doctor Who.
What you will carry away, apart from the news that New York seems, all things considered, a nicer place to live than Pyongyang, are a number of striking scenes and images.
The sister left behind has to navigate a society that uses small rewards and large punishments to keep everyone in order, and we watch her getting increasingly clever at playing the system.
The preciousness of rice to a starving people is brought alive by having a bag of it make beautiful music, and even the seemingly excessive formal courtesy of Asian speech is seen to be intended largely for the microphones and spies presumed to be listening everywhere.
Meanwhile, the immigrant's experience of a new language is captured by having the American characters first speak total gibberish, then gibberish with the recognisable cadences of English, then gibberish with the occasional clear English word, and then finally completely clear language.
We know that sister is fully Americanised when she takes her problems to a therapist, and in a happier moment she literally walks on the walls in delight and excitement.
Actresses Katie Leung and Wendy Kweh as the sisters, and a small supporting cast playing Everyone Else, work hard to keep things moving, but they are unable to keep things clear.
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