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Critics over The Mother's staging


Patrice Pavis
Critics over The Mother's staging

Korean contemporary arts are almost unknown in Europe and particularly in France. However the play created by the author and actor Oh Tai-sok and staged by the director Shin Meran (1), is not only an important venue but also one of the most famous plays of the repertoire. Omi (The mother) is a monologue of a dozen pages. More than a dramatic work this is a lyric poetry, an elegy about a child’s death. The mother tells who ever it is the story of her miserable life since her son enrolled to the moment he got suicide because of his supervisors’ bullying. She evokes her daily life, her diving into deep water to bring out seafood, her pride at being able to raise her son alone after her husband’s death at sea, when she was only 18. She talks about her mourning and her desperate intent to find her deceased son a deceased wife.

Reading the dramatic text only, the French reader would remain perplex: he would probably think he does not have the cultural keys for the story to make sense, even to find out  its symbolic meaning. Most probably he would be rebuked by this bleak, tragic and unmanageable world. It would be difficult for him to make out the cultural misunderstanding from the complexity of the enigmatic poetic writing. Nevertheless when the text becomes a theatrical performance it goes differently. Even though the staging does not always explain the opaque text, it enables to bring a virtual story and characters to life through actors and artists and thus the ambiguities get biased.

This is what Shin Meran’s staging realizes perfectly. That is why we should focus a while on the creation and the staging processes. This theatrical work enables us to understand “scenically” our cultural differences. It shows us that arts can convey intercultural communication, without simplifying, neglecting and exploiting any culture. The staging of Omi paves the way to a new approach for European culture to receive foreign texts.

 The director chooses neither to stress the point on the literary text nor on the character’s performance by a unique actor. By emphasizing the poetic and lyric dimension of the text, instead of insisting on the dramatic and tragic fate of the play, Shin Meran turns Oh Tai-sok’s text into a multimedia show where all the possibilities of scenic arts and performances are used: abstract videos (from Kim Sungjae Rêvo) displaying ocean’s waves,  a soundtrack (created by Sébastien Diou and Lee Chungyeup) of the waves, an original musical composition by Raphaële Murer, a complex lights system on the stage and on objects by d’Aurélien Huguenin, contemporary dance choreographed and executed by Hsu Haï-wen, and the large organization of the rest of the performance (by Kim Nayoung and Choe Woosung).

There is nothing unusual to use all these materials for a staging. But what is original is the way the stage incorporates artists who benefit from a large autonomy regarding a whole intention and the way the story is interacted with these arts, these systems and their specific possibilities. The staging, sparkled in space and shared between the different arts, liberates the text from its linear shape and its tragic weight. It decentralizes the narration and the mother’s character: indeed the mother is no longer only a character who tells her life but becomes a storyteller. Moreover she is a narrator: as an author, she organizes the story; as a stage director, she arranges the materials on the stage. Her part reminds that of a Pansori singer, traditional or updated. This epic hindsight technique prevents the nearly Wagner-like emotional fusion of the dramatic, scenic and musical elements we found in opera works staged in western countries. But for all that, it is not a mutual and critical distanciation of these elements or arts, as Brecht would have done, aiming at keeping a critical distance between the artists themselves or between the audience and what happens on the stage.

The staging suggests another way of intercultural understanding: the mother’s verbal story is accompanied, extended and put into metaphor by dance, music and lights. The Taiwanese dancer, Hsu Haï-wen, goes front and back stage according to the story’s needs: some narrative, some emotional. The cello’s music, composed by Raphaële Murer, has a naturally plaintive tone and its composition is both incisive and discrete; it enters the dramatic and emotional space. Raphaële Murer’s very beautiful musical composition brings about a breath, a body to the story, to the ghosts, to the desire floating between sky and land. The intervention of a live music transforms the atmosphere, it gives us a feeling about what we are perceiving from the text. Music is a voice which speaks with the mother’s real and inside voice. As for the light, it varies along with the story’s progression and the atmosphere changes: therefore it serves the dramaturgy of actions and progression of emotions.

The choreography of movements attracts the attention, digs and extends space, refocuses the action but distracts the viewers who are really into the story’s text. The dancer’s physical presence gets to the front of the scene action. Thus she interacts with the mother and as a consequence she plays a part into the story. Her status on the stage is different front the mother’s.  The viewers know quite well she does not belong to the same world as the mother. The choreography contributes to elaborate the mother’s story. In the previous version, the performer was a dancer -a man- and so could be either the son or his ghost. If we think into dramaturgic language, the dancer would rather be the double, the incarnated mother’s consciousness. Few mother’s sentences repeated by the dancer in Chinese, get the audience even more confused in regards of the role of the choreography. But quickly we understand that dance and other non-text systems aim at deconstructing the text rather than explaining it by exposing them to different lights so that they enlighten the text’s complexity and ambiguity. Thanks to all the scenic systems (lyrics, live music, soundtracks, light’s movements), the show keeps its artistic meaning. It mitigates the linear and figurative dominance of the story. It prevents us from too reductionist or imaginary a meaning. It encourages us to flush out a cultural allusion which would divert from a universal meaning: a mother’s mourning weeping for her son.

The actress (Elisabeth Moreau) incarnates and shows the character of the mother. Frail, fragile, small, curly haired unlike any Korean women, but with a huge inside intensity, the French actress has no difficulty to play the character of the mother as frail and determinate as traditional Gorki’s Brave Mother or Brecht’s. This mother is not only a narrator who tells her life. She is a narrator who sometimes gets off her part, gets closer to the audience, gets detached from her character. She reveals how she takes part into the whole dramaturgic poem and the dialogue with all other arts and systems significant in the performance.

The dialogue is more interartistic than intercultural yet paradoxically this insistence over the artistic and formal work allows us to a better appreciation of the cultural differences. Arts make easier cultural communication, it becomes sometime an “adaptor” between cultures. Shin Meran definitely chooses theatrical arts in all its dimensions in order to help us to enter an artistic cultural original strange world. Her show is not an anthropologic survey over divers of Jeju island, neither it is an indictment against Korean workers’socio-political life conditions. It is the portrait, by many arts, of a universal maternal figure to whom everybody could identify themselves.

This artistic experience makes us travel from one era to another which still needs to be invented. Thanks to the staging and everything it announces, we go beyond the interculturalism of the 1970-80’s, which tried to have (almost in a sense of interconnected system) divergent cultures communicate by searching either universal culture (Grotowski, Brook, Barba) or adapting and, in this case, francizing, foreign elements and giving an equivalent in the audience culture. The stage director avoids homogenization of globalized cultures. We (Europeans) have access to social and cultural Korean uses but we get to them through an extremely refined scenic work over the staging. And now, thanks to this approach we manage interartistic and intercultural without knowing it.

With the interpretation of the mother, Shin Meran has been part of “A l’Est du nouveau, a world open stages network”. Her patient and brilliant work over Korean culture and theatre helps the “audience and the artists to open themselves to an intercultural dialogue and to a passive globalization and makes it indispensable nowadays (2)”.

(1) Show performed at Chaumont and Auxerre. Those reflections are written from the unique representation at Auxerre's theatre, the 16th of May 2013.

(2) Presentation text of the network « A l’est du nouveau ».


At some rare moments, actress and dancer interact. Dancer gives to the actress a silk veil that the son offered to his mother. The physical action of this exchange is real however the action is symbolical: it is a gift like a donation, a ceremony, that both women accomplished over likelihood and reality. For the show this scenic action requires an effort to dissociate in the ceremony a concrete action from a symbolic and imaginary one. Likewise, time and rhythm are different from real situation: there are dilated and magnified. The music does not illustrate an interaction, it creates an atmosphere which carries the audience to an elsewhere as much cultural and esthetic as ethic. The spectator’s pleasure is to perceive real action while he is able to evaluate the symbolic and imaginary trend.

Light gets concentrated into a halo: character, actress, spectator need sometimes to rest, to mourn, especially when the text is very dense or the situation is heavy. The space and time concentration is the opposite of the usual time-space openness and objects, speech and movement dispersion.

Space is empty as peaceful Buddhist garden. Some stones emerge from a ground which could be white sand but it rather turns grey. This oriental space, emptier than empty, is the place where the mother’s parole seems to anchor. The Mother wears a kind of Korean outfit of a dull and earthy green, between sea and land. Some colored stones pile up to shape an altar. Daily spirituality. The emotion’s intensity fills the whole scenic space. The actress play always comes from body and a voice strongly rooted in that body. The cello’s cries amplified even more the corporal anchor of the play.

The mother as found a dead spouse to her deceased son. The last sequence about her elegy suddenly turns peaceful. It is the time of “sending”, the strange ceremony’s conclusion, the moment where we start our way toward the beyond world. Dancer crosses the stage to a last ceremony, closing the 4 corners of the scenic space. The Mother prays that her son’s and his spouse’s souls become as inseparable as the two stone Buddha. She spreads some flower’s petals through space. We hear her breath. Now we live close to her. We are going to "join the Mother who seek for her life burden in the depth of her heart" (Shin  Meran).


Patrice Pavis

Patrice Pavis, professor at the Kent University of Cantorbury. He tought for two years at the National Damatic Arts Conservatory of Seoul in Korea. He prepares a book over this experience.