Two days later. Sitting in the dark. I am in the Arko Arts Theater, whose Main Hall (대극장, lit. “big stage”) is a typical proscenium stage. Today’s show is “Simpan” (심판/審判) a production of Kafka’s “Trial” by the Experimental Theatre Group (극단 실험극장), based on a dramatization by André Gide and Jean-Louis Barrault. Not being a particular fan of Kafka—except for the “Hungerkünstler”, of course—, I rather stumbled into the theater when strolling through Daehang-no (대학로, lit. “university street”), the lively neighbourhood that hosts most of Seoul’s privately-run theatres.
Here, virtually dozens of plays and musicals are staged every night, whether in rather luxurious venues like the Arko or in run-down third-storey off-theatres like the one where I witnessed the unforgettable “Momo” (yes! a musical adaptation of Michael Ende’s classic) in 2008. Anyway, Arko Arts Theater is just next to Marronnier Park (마로니에 공원, named after the hallmark chestnut tree in the park)—you can see both the theatre and the park, beautifully drawn by LEE Yong-Hwan, here: (visit his blog for more pictures)
Arko’s Main Hall (대극장, lit. “big stage”) is a typical proscenium stage, separating the audience quite effectively from what is happening on those boards that mean the world (not Shakespeare but Schiller, surprisingly?). There is not much decoration only some chairs and a coffee table, marking a vintage hotel room. Two massive stairways on the left and on the right dominate the stage. In the course of performance, people will mount up there to hold a speech from above or come down to get a beating.
Doors in the backside open, women in cream-coloured costumes and nylons and umbrellas. A wheelchairer rolls along. Men in grey suits with hats and cigarettes. Sharp light. Harsh noises from off-stage.
The BE could not have done it better.
Clear and slow (and long) monologues, still I can hardly understand a word except for “Josep Kay” once in a while. Suddenly a nice scene: A woman sprays some perfume on Josep Kay who tries to avoid the wet fragrance at first. Three more enter and start spraying in sync. There is no escape from the odor of guilt. The finale is pathetic: Jesus-Josep, stabbed to death, sitting there in blinding spot light. Then applaus, against the rhythm of recorded music.
In contrast to my experiences at the Vin Vino, I felt pretty much at ease next to hundreds of strangers, far away from the mostly gloomy stage. Back in Itaewon it seemed as if I—little tourist me—was on trial, making me reflect on my own behaviour, especially the funny business, more than I wanted. Had to look as if I understood the tongue-in-cheek humor of those two “Irishmen” although I did not, which can be hard at times (then again, laughing is contagious).
In the darkness of Arko Theater, I understood much less, but nobody gave a damn. I was silenced, sometimes dozing off, sometimes drifting off to the strange story I had read maybe ten years ago. The noises and smells in the wine restaurant, the low light from outside on that sunny afternoon, as well as the disciplining devices of Kafka’s world of law and justice had distracted me—however in very different ways:
On display, I had tried to play my role for the other spectators (ten persons at most) as well as the performers, finding a place in this English-Irish enclave in Seoul without even drinking wine. Part of the dark masses, my doubts about the existential questions posed by the Trial of Josep Kay stuck with me.
In both cases I felt alone, although I had done nothing wrong. Munching an over-priced garden salad until everybody else had left had been my response at the Vin Vino. At Arko Theater I tried another approach: Having left the building quickly after the one and only curtain call, I turned around and lit a cigarette. Here they come, my fellow spectators. But who am I? I would not know now.
— 4 May 2010 (火)