Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London (****)
Director Richard Twyman is something of a specialist when it comes to international plays. His previous one in this theatre was his sensitive handling of Palestinian writer, Dalia Taha’s delicate Fireworks, covering the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Mia Chung’s You For Me For You in a sense is easier material as an outright satire on North Korea and the insularity if not downright macabre nature of its political system. Chung though does also take pot-shots at the USA in her fantasy about two sisters in flight from North Korean reality through a journey to the future that zigzags across time, space and continents.
First staged in the US three years ago, it’s clear, reading the script, that Twyman has made some judicious edits but still leaving a play that jumps awkwardly between naturalism and the surreal – if hilariously at one point emulating how American English might sound to a time travelling North Korean suddenly arriving in New York.
Chung sometimes overstates her case but Twyman with designer, Jon Bausor, produces a constantly surprising production of reflecting mirrors, trap doors and panels allowing for some miraculous scene and time shifts. Trees grow ears (a metaphor for political surveillance); rice becomes magical music whilst an actor in a bear suit is a constant reminder of the child lost by Minhee, the sister still stuck on the border between North Korea and China and (psychologically) the past and the future.
If Chung’s ultimate intention is not entirely clear, Katie Leung (Junhee) as the sister whose metaphorical flight to the US (and sacrifice) may release Minhee from the past, and Wendy Kweh as Minhee, the sister left behind, bring out quite beautifully the pathos, absurdity and hardship of living under political systems whose political rhetoric says one thing whilst inflicting quite the opposite on its citizens.
Daisy Haggard delivers a tour de force of verbal nonsense as the epitome of fast-talking/living America with terrific support from Kwong Loke, Andrew Leung (spelling out Korean cruelties) and Paapa Essiedu as Junhee’s Africa-American boyfriend whose empathy and imagination gives her a taste of what her life might have been like, elsewhere.
Perplexing but ultimately poignant.
You For Me For You runs at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs to Jan 9, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Dec 2015