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Review- What Remains of Us @ Bristol Old Vic Theatre

The Korean War is often dubbed the ‘The Forgotten War’, for the lack of attention it received compared to more well-documented conflicts such as World War I and II and the Vietnam War.

By Milan Perera, Second Year English

The Korean War is often dubbed the ‘The Forgotten War’, for the lack of attention it received compared to more well-documented conflicts such as World War I and II and the Vietnam War. But there is nothing benign about this conflict, claiming the lives of some 5 million soldiers and civilians, the memory of the Korean War is still raw and poignant for many.

And even for those who survived the war, it has been no pleasure cruise; families have been torn apart on either side of the infamous Demilitarised Zone never to meet again. But for some, there were rare state-sponsored reunions on the North Korean side of the border.

‘What Remains of Us’ revolves around one such reunion where Sueng-Ki, a resident of Seoul travels to the other side of the border to be united with her long-lost father, Kwan-Suk, who she has not seen for 50 long years. She has only a vague recollection of him who left behind a family in the South when she was only three years old. The former solider assumed a new life in North Korea, started another family and moved on.

What can you say to your father who you have not seen for almost a lifetime? Where do you even begin? What remains of them that would still bind them through the sands of time?

The playwright David Lane has been able to capture the kaleidoscope of emotions exploded during this three-day meeting, ranging from exhilaration to resentment. The fabulously versatile director, Sita Calvert-Ennals paints a visually arresting and emotionally charged tableau to which the doyen thespians Jung Sun den Hollander and Kwong Loke add fresh hues with finesse.

As the father and daughter met the gaze of one another, it was an outpouring of sheer joy. They lock themselves into a tight hug for a long time as if to make up for those lost years. But things do not flow smoothly for them as things slide into uncharted territories. They argue. They trade insults. They cry and they laugh. It was an emotional roller coaster neither of them was prepared for.

Jung Sun den Hollander and Kwong Loke perfectly capture the pathos of the occasion. The well-choreographed physical movements, the poignant dialogues, the minimalist set, and the engrossing lighting form a vibrant theatrical spectacle which was further embellished with stirring incidental music by Duncan Speakman and Jae-Moon Lee. The set by Lulu Tam was slick and sophisticated with a banquet table that cleaves in two and a digital clock that dictates the proceedings.

It was a cathartic moment for both daughter and father who have been strangers to one another. Being flanked by military personal in plain clothes (not present in the set physically) and a CCTV camera, Kwan Suk is unable to channel his true emotions as he would have liked to as they needed to be filtered through a prism of Party Propaganda. He incessantly sings praises of the Dear Leader on how he has brought prosperity and peace to the blessed land of North Korea while deriding Seung-Ki for being a stooge of the imperialist America.  This manifests how politics has seared into our very existence, a politics that would impede us from even mending broken family ties.

When Seung-Ki refused to say ‘goodbye’ to her father, clinging to him with teary eyes as they bid farewell, there were many a glistened eye in the audience when the curtain call beckoned, a testament to the stellar quality of the production.

Featured Image: Kirsten McTernan

‘What Remains of Us’ runs from 3 - 12 of March at Bristol Old Vic Theatre. A slick, visceral and heartfelt production not to be missed.