Edinburgh Festival: Angela Kwon on Korean theatre

Brush is a family show with puppetry, dance and storytelling. Picture: Contributed
Brush is a family show with puppetry, dance and storytelling. Picture: Contributed
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Angela Kwon is back with another intriguing selection of Korean works to tempt us, says David Pollock

I T’S been 17 years since producer Angela Kwon first brought a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and right from the start the collaboration was a success. Although the show Cookin’ (known in its home country as Nanta) premiered in South Korea in 1997, its 1999 Western debut was another huge success, opening doors across the world. Eighteen countries and an off-Broadway run later, this food-themed comedy hadn’t just put Korean theatre on the map, it had solidified the international view of it as being dynamic and physical.

Kwon reels off her hits at the Fringe. “Cookin’ was a big hit for us in 1999 and it had an encore in 2000, which was totally sold out,” she says. “Then Jump, I brought the show in 2005 and 2006 as well, it was a huge success. Korean Drum (subtitled Journey of a Soul) in 2011, which was choreographed by Soo-Ho Kook, who’s one of the well-known choreography masters (he worked on the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics). It was grand, a big hit also.”

Thanks to Kwon and Assembly director William Burdett-Coutts, a longtime collaborator in getting the work over here, Korean theatrical exports have come to view Edinburgh as their main entry point to the West. This year, buoyed by such past successes, Kwon is trying something different. She’s brought the inaugural Korean season to Edinburgh, showcasing five productions (three of them Edinburgh premieres) which carry on the recent tradition of bringing over pieces which are well established in South Korea and which have an emphasis on physical performance, negating any troubles with the language barrier.

“Five of the shows are quite popular already in Korea and two have been to Edinburgh last year,” she says. “We were concerned about the language barrier so we concentrated to find shows that are better for the western audience, and they will be for all ages. They don’t have any barriers. If I need to pick one it would be PAN, a very traditional show – a grand performance with big drums and beautiful costumes, together with 14 performers.”

Produced by the Korean Tourism Development Institute (KTDI), the world ‘Pan’ means ‘festival’, the show seems designed to offer a primer on what audiences might expect from a big-budget take on traditional Korean dance and culture.

Elsewhere, the EDx2 Dance Company make their Edinburgh debut with a pair of works under the banner of One Fine Day: Modern Feelings and What We’ve Lost, with choreographer Lee Insoo (“the most celebrated dancer in Korea,” says Kwon) creating a show based around modern styles involving acrobatics and hip-hop. LOTTO: Karma of the Alchemist is Kwon’s own production, as were Cookin’ and Jump, and again it uses dance and physical theatre to tell a simple story, this time of an office worker who buys a winning lottery ticket and is dropped into the world of his dreams.

Leodo: The Paradise is another dance and music performance, this time one which showcases the traditional shamanic Kut ritual. “It’s from about 500 years back,” says Kwon. “It’s really traditional but it’s kind of outsider, not many people use this kind of ritual at the moment. But they still exist and we would like to show this to the world, lots of people are showing interest in this very old tradition.

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“Brush, finally, is a purely family show. “With music, puppetry, dance and storytelling, it will be a lovely performance.”

These shows, says Kwon, are the best representations of a Korean theatre scene which embraces more than 150 theatres around the Daehakro area of Seoul, its equivalent of Broadway or the West End, of which 70 are aimed purely at tourists. She says “serious” theatre is in the minority; the appetite is mainly for classical music and for Western musicals, which have flourished since it became easier for Koreans to get a passport and travel the world.

“There are new shows produced every day,” she says. “The musicals, the market is so big, we have all the famous musicals from the West End and Broadway. The market has been grown so big and it’s only taken less than 25 years.

“The musicals are the winners every time and classical music is big, the Seoul City Orchestra is always sold out. Opera too. So we don’t have only physical performance, but it will be best in Edinburgh for a western audience to have an understanding without words because Korean is really hard to learn.”

The plan is for the Korean Season to extend to seven shows next year and nine the year after. “Hopefully for many more years it will be successful.”

• Brush is at Assembly Roxy until 30 August, today 11am. Leodo: The Paradise is at Assembly George Square until 30 August, today 2pm. LOTTO: Karma of the Alchemist is at Assembly George Square until 31 August, today 3:30pm. One Fine Day is at Assembly Hall until 31 August, today midday. PAN is at Assembly Hall until 31 August, today 2:30pm.