In The History of Korean Western Theatre, the South Korean theatre maker Jaha Koo links the cultural history of Korea to his personal story. In a sober setting, he interweaves contemporary object theater with projections of images, electronic music compositions and storytelling. And he sure strikes a chord with it.
On a plateau in a completely white room is an electric white rice cooker, which over time introduces itself with a mechanical female voice. The voice is assisted by a series of flashing LEDs. It’s Cuckoo, we already know ‘her’ from an earlier performance by Jaha Koo. Together with him she tells the story of The History of Korean Western Theatre. A story that starts off with the necessary witticisms and a perspective on the developments in contemporary theatre. The tone is set, for the expert that is.
Jaha Koo is an aesthete, he places his black-and-white projections prominently in the space with a deft technical intervention. We see historical images of rites, followed by illustrations of a story that tells how under the Japanese occupier European standards became leading in Korea and Western theatre thus claimed its place in Korean culture. What is white becomes black and vice versa, the negative starting point of the images has an alienating effect. This choice reinforces the aesthetic premise, but is also ‘political’. This is further confirmed when the photos from Jaha Koo’s personal past appear in color. It is precisely those details that carry the performance.
From countryside to the city; we learn how industrialization breaks up a family’s life. But also how close the bonds are between caregiver and child. Based on the relationship with his grandmother, Jaha Koo puts history in a personal perspective. Subdued and in an almost absent presence, he talks through an invisible microphone about their bond and her ‘memory disease’. Every detail in that story is given a function and in this way he makes connections between history and autobiography. Little by little we also get an impression of the original Korean culture, which has been largely hidden under the Western imperialism of the past century.
Koo studied for a few years in Amsterdam at the master Dasarts, now he has found a base in Flanders, with a.o. producer CAMPO in Ghent. The History of Korean Western Theatre is the final installment in his Hamartia trilogy. He previously created Lolling and Rolling and Cuckoo. Each of those scenes tells a hamartia, Greek for “tragic mistake.” Koo always links his personal stories with historical, political and sociological facts. They always show the clash between Eastern and Western culture.
Electronic music compositions (Koo is a multi-talent) easily string together all the elements in the performance and of course the frog – an Eastern symbol of happiness – also has a prominent place in the performance. With apparently simple, but technically ingenious means, Jaha Koo touches the heart of his viewer. The History of Korean Western Theatre reassesses a lost culture while at the same time meticulously analyzing the influence of superpowers; on the individual man, on a nation, on a culture.
The article was first published on theaterkrant.nl on May 27th, 2021.