Seoul & South Korean shows at the Fringe

A whistlestop tour of South Korea's capital whets the appetite for the Assembly's second Korea season and offers a timely reminder that the world can be beautiful

Feature by Lauren Strain | 03 Aug 2016

It is quiet in the library of Emperor Gojong. Mist obscures the peak of Mount Bugaksan, and warm rain drips from the eaves into our shoes, sandy and abandoned at the palace door.

Standing among hand-painted books on this still, sweaty day, it is difficult to believe you are at the centre of the world's 'most wired' city – although in a sense, you could not be more exposed. Partway along a gradual decline from Bugaksan to the skyscrapers of downtown Seoul, you are both in the sights of the Presidential Blue House, and on the site of centuries of political struggle; just around the corner is the spot where, towards the end of the 500-year Joseon Dynasty, Gojong's wife Min was assassinated by Japanese agents who had invaded her private residence.

In places like Gyeongbokgung – Seoul's largest and oldest palace, which has been destroyed and rebuilt twice since its original construction in 1395 – history can seem to collapse. The whisper of a breeze could as easily be the breath of Min's skirts, rippling through time, as the echo of traffic from the Sejong-daero road. 

Seoul comes to Edinburgh

We are in the South Korean capital for just 72 hours – not even that – to sample the shows coming to this year's Edinburgh Fringe as part of Assembly's second Korean Season. Spanning ancient and contemporary practices from mask play and folk song to b-boying (breakdancing) and beatboxing, the programme showcases the range and artistry of Korean culture.

It shifts from a meditative exploration of the shaman tradition (theatre piece Binari) to the almost psychic synchronicity of dance/drum fusion group Tago; from the sweet story of family musical Singsing Bathtub and Fernando, the Space Elephant to narrative magic from award-winning illusionists SNAP.

Finally, fans of K-pop culture will be amused and amazed by Chef: Come Dine With Us!, a frantic mash-up of acrobatics, martial arts and humour that could only have come out of South Korea. A popular hit in Seoul, where it is known as 'delicious musical' Bibap and has an open run at its home theatre, Chef expresses the joy of cooking through physical spectacle.

Set in a kitchen where two chefs must battle it out to make the best bibimbap – the Korean signature dish – it combines a gameshow aesthetic, punky soundtrack and comic-strip characters with gravity-defying headspins from the b-boys, food-inspired medleys from the beatboxers and some unwitting cameos from the audience.

But you don't fly nine timezones around the globe just to see some theatre. You do it to fall in love. The tight-knit production team, cast and director of Chef are our hosts for the weekend, and they introduce us to the tastes and pace of Seoul: the boutiques and green-tea emporia of Insa-dong; the medicinal temple foods of the Goryeo Dynasty, served in the peaceful Gosang restaurant; the after-dark social clubs of street food markets; and, reluctantly, some sea squirt (which does exactly what it says on the tin).

After weeks of anxious suspension in a post-referendum media climate, this all feels a vital reminder that life is bigger than click-driven panic. That said, the world is as small as it is enormous; or rather, we are as connected as we are distant. The teen boys who show us around Gyeongbokgung as part of a youth volunteering scheme want to know what we think about Brexit; if, living in Manchester, I support City or United; and what the differences are, if any, between their home and ours.

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Reports of the Bastille Day attack reach us on arrival at Incheon airport; our host hands us his phone and, as we drive through the immense urban sprawl – hundreds of outlying apartment blocks in uniform brown, dust and salmon pink – this unfamiliar landscape is shot through with all-too-familiar news. There is concern, there are questions; halfway across the hemisphere, England's recent introspection is put to shame.

Here, instead, exchange is at the heart of everything. It's what the Korean Season is built on – a desire to share. The charismatic young drummers of Tago ask us for our thoughts on a new segment – how do we think it will go down in Edinburgh? (We haven't blinked once during the seismic, mystic performance they give us in their rehearsal space in Gangnam; we're pretty sure it's impossible to be anything but stunned.)

Which songs do we think Fringe audiences will enjoy the most?, Chef's beatboxers are keen to know. As we share ideas, we share bottles of soju; baskets of sweet-sticky chicken; flame-fresh stoves of seafood stew, and bowls of creamy wine. Hell, we even share the penalty in a particularly fiendish drinking game. Failed five times and can't down that pint? Don't worry, I'll do it with you. No wait – let me pour. Let me.

The work of Lee Jung Seob

It's this kind of givingness – and giving of kindness – that is foremost in a major exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Deoksugung), where we spend our last afternoon. Marking the 100th anniversary of his birth is the first full retrospective of Lee Jung Seob (1916-1956), who lived and worked in a time of continuous turmoil; as a student during Japanese occupation and, after his marriage, in poverty during the Korean war.

The war's devastation forced Lee's young family to live separately, his wife and sons moving to Japan while he attempted to earn a transient living in Korea. The pivot point of the exhibition is a room full of his letters, many of them illuminated with colourful illustrations depicting wished-for family life; in some, the artist draws himself reaching across the page for his children.

The curatorial choice to highlight Lee's selflessness and devotion seems telling. (There is also a display of wordless postcards painted for his wife during their courtship, and a big room dedicated to his 'tinfoil' etchings – images scraped into tobacco foil when he was too poor to afford materials, many of them portraying life with his kids.)

For a long time Lee's letters were animated and hopeful, but as the years passed he sank into despair and almost stopped writing completely. Cheated out of the proceeds from solo exhibitions he'd held to raise money for travel to Japan, he fell into a deep depression and became increasingly ill. Lee died alone at just 41, having never been reunited with his family.

This is a hugely moving show, a portrait of a man whose life was refused by hardship and yet for whom a largeness of spirit and insistence on artistic expression survived longer than could be reasonably expected. As in the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace, where a history tarnished by tragedy has been remembered and restored, there is a sense in these low-lit galleries of time in concertina; of past folding into present, sadness into repose.

Above all, despite the fabled speed of Seoul there is a heavy serenity here – in the gardens of Deoksugung and in the blinking night skyline, which tracks our return to the airport along the vast Han river. As we outstrip the sunrise on our flight back home, the light seems to lift three times: three cheers, perhaps (clink-clink!), for this complex and generous place.


Chef: Come Dine With Us!, Assembly George Square Theatre, 4-29 Aug (not 15), 4pm
Binari, Assembly Hall (Rainy Hall), 4-29 Aug (not 22), 12pm
Singsing Bathtub and Fernando, the Space Elephant, Assembly George Square Studios (One), 4-28 Aug (not 15, 22), 12.15pm
Tago: Korean Drum II, Assembly Hall (Rainy Hall), 4-29 Aug (not 17), 2.55pm
SNAP, Assembly George Square Theatre, 4-29 Aug (not 15, 22), 1.20pm