Choon-Hyang: an impeccable production

One of the great benefits of living in a metro is the opportunity of getting to taste the culture and art of other lands. This time, Ranga Shankara, as part of their AHA! initiative of theatre for children, brought the mammoth production of Choon Hyang (‘True Love’) by Theater Seoul, all the way from Korea.

It could not have been an easy task to bring 20 children all the way from Korea to India, but Theatre Seoul in conjunction with Inko Centre (Indo-Korean centre) managed it. Natia Lee, the producer of the play and president of Theatre Seoul, also admitted that it was a strain to present the performance in English, in front of an Indian audience.

The story of the play goes thus:

Choon-Hyang is a Korean love story. Choon-Hyang is the daughter of a widow from the group ‘Kisaeng‘ (a group of women who dance and sing for a livelihood) at Namwon, a southern provincial town of Korea. She falls in love with Lee Mong-Ryong, son of a noble family. However, after a few days, Lee Mong-Ryong leaves Namwon, as his father has to serve in an official position in Hanyang (the old name of Seoul).

Fan dance Korean play Choon Hyang, Ranga Shankara

Fan dance Korean play Choon Hyang, Ranga Shankara (Pic: Deepa Mohan)

A new governor comes to Choon-Hyang’s town. On hearing about Choon-Hyang’s beauty, he approaches her. But Choon-Hyang repeatedly refuses his orders and is jailed. The new governor decides to kill her on his birthday.

Meanwhile in Hanyang, Lee Mong-Ryong successfully passes the ‘Kwago’ (a government exam to recruit high-level officers) and becomes an ‘Amhaengosa’ (a secret inspector on local administration commissioned by the royal decree). He returns to Choon-Hyang’s town but does not disclose his position. A series of incidents follow until Lee Mong-Ryong discloses his identity at the birthday party of the governor. He then punishes the governor for his misbehaviour and is happily reunited with Choon-Hyang

I would not call this a play in the strict sense of the word; the word ‘musical’ or ‘opera’ would better suit the production. The children sang, played various percussion instruments and followed the choreography of the pieces (choreography by Kywoon Lee) to perfection. They were so appealing that even a less-than perfect performance would have been accepted by the house-full crowds at Ranga Shankara…but these children were impeccable.

I must also make special mention of the fact that the musical was not done in the original Korean, but in English, a language which many of the children are not, apparently, familiar with. So if, at times, the pronunciation was a little difficult to understand- it was, after all, a tale of love between a maiden and a young man, and the obstacles to their love; so all that the audience needed to do was to understand the drift, and marvel at the production values.

And how lavish the production was! The colours, the lights (Junghoon Lee), and the sets (Bongsoo Park) were all were magnificent. True to its claim of being theatre by children and for children, colour and spectacle predominated. The costumes, which were made from paper but looked perfectly durable and good, were just as colourful as the sets; and the various shiny props such as knives, cymbals, and fans that the children used, all dazzled us with their multicoloured, glittering reflections of light.

The music (composer and sound-in-charge, Hyunsub Shin) was another big plus of the show. The rhythm was always brisk and rousing, and the children’s energy a palpable thing as they sang the lifting tunes. The lyrics were not always understood, but it didn’t matter at all. The sad scenes, with their haunting tunes, were evocative, and the slapstick comedy had the children in the audience laughing and clapping whole-heartedly.

Fan dance Korean play Choon Hyang, Ranga Shankara

Pic: Deepa Mohan

Several elements of gymnastics and acrobatics had their place, too; when the hero swished his cap and long-ribbon around like the gymnastics at the Olympics do, the children roared their approval; when infrared lighting made beautiful images and patterns of the fan dance, the adults too joined in the applause!

Another amazing feature of this musical was that the costumes for the play were created exclusively from traditional Korean Hanji paper, which is known for its extraordinary strength and elasticity. Hanji paper, made from the bark of a kind of mulberry tree, has unprecedented length of cellulose fibres created during process of paper pulp production. We just could not believe that we were looking at paper costumes!

The director of the musical, Kevin Kim, came to take his bow along with Natia Lee after the show, and the whole cast and crew got a standing ovation from the audience.

It was also heartening to see that Ranga Shankara had invited several schoolchildren to attend special showings only for them at two 11AM performances, and that visually challenged children were specially invited. Indeed, the cast were seen shaking hands with these special children after the show, and the sense of camaraderie was moving.

Theatre Seoul was founded in 1995, and this particular production has travelled to New York, Shanghai, Edinborough and Singapore, and was in Bangalore as part of its India tour.

Truly, a remarkable evening of theatre from abroad, made possible by the AHA! initiative of Ranga Shankara, and thoroughly enjoyed by both the children and adults on both days!

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About Deepa Mohan 153 Articles
Deepa Mohan is a freelance writer and avid naturalist.