Review by Kate Gaul
Haddangse Korea Theatre Company return to Edinburgh with this gem of a production “At that Time, Byeon” Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) was a traumatic experience for Koreans. For the first ten years Japan ruled directly through the military, and any Korean dissent was ruthlessly crushed. During that time a maid – Byeon, also known as Maria – was murdered and her killer was never bought to justice. Haddangse have created an inventive Chaplinesque black comedy that tells the story of Maria’s death.
This is a story of unbridled passions, secret affairs, and Korean pop culture. The entire show is made in front of our eyes as if it is a silent film – complete with monochromatic projection and offstage foley. The sound effects are beyond charming and belie rigorous theatre making techniques and vital imaginations. Everything from tiny footsteps moving down a corridor to the filmic SFX of hand-to-hand combat are covered and much more. The sight of an actor belting a vegetable to get the appropriate sound is both entertaining and awe inspiring. Projection of light from a video projector on the floor is supported by the company who also use handheld lights to create atmospheric scenes that reflect the golden age of Korean gangsters. Backed by a roll of paper the company use this to great effect not just as a projection surface but one that can be ultimately broken through. This is an economic production where every element is used and reused to maximum effect.
The entire company is impressive. No more so than Chaeyeon Kim who plays heroine Maria. She has enormous charisma and works with absolute precision. She breaks our hearts as her hours become numbered in the corrupt household where she is maid. Seungtae Kim plays a salesman, and he is also a kind of ring master who drives the story. Sura Choi plays Madam whose illicit affair with the President of the Railway Company – played by an appropriately slimy Kwangseon Park – sets the tragedy in motion. Of course, there is the (in) competent detective played with authority by Jane Kwon and Yejin Kim is hilarious as the witness.
There are so many great aspects of this production – I have mentioned the live sound effects and most of the text is lip synched by the onstage actors and spoken but those at the Foley tables either side of the stage. The physicality of the performances is virtuosic at times and quite different from the more familiar European practices. We learn a little of Korea’s history too. One of the joys of attending Edinburgh Fringe is finding these unique international works. “At that Time, Byeon” is great fun. Recommended!