Monday 8 February 2016

Unsent Postcards: You For Me For You – Royal Court, London

[seen 17/12/15]

Christ. CHRIST.

It’s a while since I’ve seen a play that’s actually made me question not only the sanity of the theatre that programmed it, but also my own.

There is only one memorable line in the script of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You and it’s the quote from Chung Hyun Shik printed opposite the list of characters and notes in the the playtext.

It says: “For the frog in the well, the sky it can see is the whole world, and so the world appears a small blue circle.”

And, yes, it absolutely describes the exact problem of the whole play. I am reasonably sure that in the mind of American playwright Mia Chung, this frog is emblematic of the North Koreans who are nominally the play’s subject. For me, watching in appalled fascination, it is a very precise description of a playwright who has produced perhaps the most striking piece of American propaganda that I’ve ever seen put on stage.

Perhaps my amazement isn’t entirely down to the script. Perhaps in a less slick, cartoonish production, wherein the play was interrogated rather than served (neatly and brilliantly in many ways, I don’t deny), then the Royal Court might have come away with some of its previous (if always debatable) leftist credentials intact. But as it is, North Korea is endless hell, while America is some amusingly presented minor irritations. A veritable land of fully-functioning opportunity for immigrants and historical racism that we can all laugh about now.

Of course, I don’t deny that North Korea sounds absolutely terrible from what we’re always told about it in the West, and who am I to doubt it? Or to doubt the word of an American playwright, descended from South Korean parents, who has never been there either? It’s this more than anything that sticks in the throat. It’s the fact that this is a dramatisation of nothing more than antagonistic propaganda. *Of course* I’d be interested in hearing from the dissenting voices of North Korea. Who wouldn’t? Just as we were interested in the informed, internal critiques from Eastern Europe of Heiner Müller or Václav Havel. But this isn’t those. This is precisely the impression that the American media hands down to its audience, turned unthinkingly into a stirring anthem to American freedom. Christ knows why we are watching it in England in 2015.

The play’s central thesis seems to be that America is better because you can complain there. There is painfully rudimentary satire of the idea that American #firstworldproblems are perhaps a bit superficial – tell that to the people the Americans execute, torture, exclude and imprison, or to the the millions of victims of America’s military adventures globally, or just to the more than 1,000 people shot by American police in 2015 – but the forceful message, rammed home over and over, is that if you’re in America, you’re alright. You really can’t complain.

If this were the intention of the play, then I wholeheartedly applaud it. It is one of the most comprehensive, chilling critiques of manufactured consent imaginable. A triumph of radical overidenification. Thing is, I can’t help feeling that’s not deliberate. It’s chilling precisely because the playwright seems to really believe it.

Beyond this, the normal grumbles apply. It’s just thing incredibly flimsy-dialogue-reliant vehicle for a sentimental story from which we’re meant to learn something. It would be a pretty poor play, even without the international relations dimension. Director Richard Twyman gives it a flashy, functional, shallow, effective production; Jon Bausor’s mirrored, angular tunnel set looks nice, and makes potentially ponderous scene changes zip by in a flash of trying-not-to-be-too-Orientalist.

The acting is good.


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