I am a lover of the theatre, and attended the Andong Mask Dance Festival, including the Hahoe Masked Drama, and saw Pansori in Jeonju, so naturally I wanted to see some theatre shows in Seoul too. The first show I saw was ‘Miso – Baebijang-jeon’ at the Jeongdong Theater.
Seoul is famous, at least in East Asia, for its own theatrical genre: non-verbal shows. The show which started the non-verbal wave is Nanta, which has been running non-stop since 1997 (in fact, it currently plays in two theaters in Seoul, as well as a theater on Jeju island). You can watch an excerpt from Nanta on YouTube.
Miso is one of the famous/popular non-verbal shows. The descriptions I had read claimed it was a simple tale of star-crossed love in the Joseon era.
Well, that’s not the story I saw. I was puzzled by how anyone could say it was a tale of star-crossed love, and figured that they had changed the story because it had been running for so long.
It turns out my guess was right – since I left South Korea, the English-language website has been updated, saying this is a new version of Miso adapted from the Joseon-era satirical novel Baebijang-jeon. That makes a lot more sense. It’s probably for the best, since I’ve seen/read tales of ‘star-crossed’ love before, whereas I will probably never read a Korean satirical novel written during the Joseon dynasty. There is a synopsis at the Jeongdong Theater website.
The Jeongdong Theater says its mission is to help spread traditional Korean culture. It is actually a restoration of the first ‘modern’ theater in Korea. And indeed, I had been in South Korea long enough to recognize many of the traits of ‘traditional Korean culture’ in the show. For example, I had heard plenty of gugak (classical Korean music) before, I had seen lots of examples of Joseon-era dress in museums, and I recognized that Secretary Bae’s wife, who acted as the narrator, was singing/chanting in a pansori style.
It wasn’t an entirely nonverbal show – there was a little dialogue. On the rare occasion that there is dialogue, there are titles which translate it into English, Japanese, and Chinese – which is a big clue as to who the target audience is.
In fact, I reckon that at least half of the audience are Chinese-speakers. I remember the woman who was in front of me in line to buy tickets spoke with a thick Beijing accent. There was also at least one contingent of English-speaking ‘Westerners’.
Granted, these nonverbal shows are popular among Koreans as well – that’s how they got started – but when these shows run for years and years, well, eventually everyone in Seoul who wants to see them has seen them. These shows can keep on running for years and years thanks to the tourists who keep coming to see them. The ‘nonverbal’ part is genius – it’s accessible to audiences who don’t know Korean, which is to say, most foreign tourists. Furthermore, shows which emphasize ‘Koreanness’ are appealing to tourists from abroad in a way that it’s not to Koreans who, well, live with ‘Koreanness’ all the time.
So, what did I think about the show. I think the story is a little mean-spirited, but the fact that it’s based on an actual Joseon novel satirizing the yangban elite totally explains that. It’s certainly a visual feast – I did love the horse dance – and the performers are all talented. I could tell they tried to cram in as many aspects of traditional Korean culture as they could fit into one show, and it works – it makes the show feel very rich. That said, it is also entertaining, and clearly tailored to a modern audience.
It seems that someone has posted a video recording of the whole show on YouTube. I do think it’s a much better experience to watch it live, and if you ever go to Seoul, I do recommend watching this show, especially if your time is limited and you can’t arrange to see more showings of traditional Korean performing arts, or if you don’t think you’d have the patience for an entire performance which just consisted of pansori or gugak.