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Anyone straying into Oh Tae-Suk’s Romeo and Juliet part way through could be forgiven for thinking they had got the wrong play. “Double, double, toil and trouble,” mutters an old crone, as she tosses noxious herbs into her cauldron.
But no, this is not the wrong play – or the wrong translation from Korean. The witch is the apothecary from whom Romeo buys his fatal drug. And this gleeful borrowing from Macbeth is typical of a production that certainly doesn’t see Shakespeare as the last word on his own play. Oh Tae-Suk’s freewheeling adaptation cuts, chops and changes the text and even alters the ending: here the Montagues and Capulets ignore the prince’s admonishment and set about brawling as before (probably a more realistic, if less comforting outcome).
There is a mischievous invention about this South Korean production (making its UK debut at BITE06) that is most attractive, and its speed and vitality are refreshing. Oh hurtles through the story in 90 minutes, creating a sense of unstoppable momentum. The vivid and fleet work of the Mokhwa Repertory Company ensemble supports this: the feud here seems to have its own life, driving forward to its tragic conclusion – and then continuing on regardless. The production swirls by in a whirl of vividly coloured costumes and disciplined traditional dance and movement. The fight scenes become skilful martial dances; the ball is a perfectly accomplished, giddying ritual.
Romeo and Juliet’s isolation and vulnerability within this maelstrom come across strongly. They spend their wedding night fighting with a huge sheet like a pair of puppies, suggesting both rapture and playful innocence. But some scenes are perplexing: I couldn’t fathom why the Mercutio- Tybalt, Tybalt-Romeo duels are conducted in a bathtub. And it is hard to engage with the characters’ plight. Kim Byung Cheol as Romeo and Kim Mun Jung as Juliet offer touching performances, but their deaths are too rushed to be moving. Tybalt (Lee Tae Hyung) and Mercutio (Lee Do Hyun) scarcely feature as individuals. I emerged impressed but dry-eyed.
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