ORANGE POLAR BEAR
The Door, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 6th November, 2018
A collaboration between the Rep, Hanyong Theatre and the National Company of Korea, this new piece co-written by Sun-Duck Ko and Evan Placey deals with the isolation teenagers can feel in this modern world. Teenage angst, as well as awkwardness and insecurity, is nothing new, of course, but this play gives a fresh look: teenage angst is global. In this supposedly connected world of instant communication and 24-hour rolling news, people can feel cut off and pessimistic about the state of the world. What the production shows quite clearly is this feeling is universal. Regardless of culture, time zone or language, teenagers (and others) are going through the same thing.
Presented against a white back wall of doors, we visit the worlds of British teen William (Rasaq Kukoyi) and Korean girl Jiyoung (Minju Kim) – the staging has both locations present in tandem. William and Jiyoung narrate their experiences in the third person; he in English, she in Korean. This is an alienation effect, to an extent; we get the idea that they are each alienated from their own experiences, their own emotions. Kukoyi delivers frustration and vulnerability, while Kim is irresistibly appealing and expressive – you hardly need look at the surtitles.
The protagonists are supported by a versatile quartet, playing multiple roles to populate the story. Cheongim Kang is excellent as Jiyoung’s classmate Taehee, pressuring Jiyoung to conform to a K-pop standard of conventional ‘beauty’, which results in an obsession on Jiyoung’s part with getting her fringe to lie flat. Kang is also marvellous as Grandmother, who keeps herself company by having the television on all day. Ah-ron Hong is physically expressive as a schoolboy, an elderly teacher, and most touchingly as Jiyoung’s emotionally distant father. Michael Kodwiw makes a strong impression as William’s friend Arthur, while Tahirah Sharif’s Sarah attracts and frustrates William in equal measure in funny scenes of their budding relationship.
Clever use of projections gives us scene changes and details, such as William’s dinner in a microwave. Multi-purpose cubes serve as furniture and sometimes podiums on which the characters stand, aloof from the action. The production design reminds me somewhat of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and this is no bad thing.
A charming, amusing piece that reminds us of the common humanity of people around the world. In this high-tech world that keeps us separated, it takes theatre to provide a connection.