Unrelenting courage: Sydney Festival’s UKCHUK-GA: Pansori Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children is perhaps Brecht’s most well-known play, written immediately prior to the Second World War in 1939, and first performed in 1941. Set in the seventeeth century, it is the story of ‘Mother Courage’ as she follows the Swedish Army during the Thirty Year War, eking out a living selling food and provisions to the soldiers. Like Brecht’s story, the Korean pansori also originated in the seventeenth century as an oral tradition of storytelling. Now a rigorous artform, pansori involves a singer and a drum, and combines a strong emotional stories with the ethereal vocal gymnastics of highly dedicated and highly trained singers. Currently playing as part of the Sydney Festival is UKCHUK-GA: Pansori Mother Courage, directed by In Woo Nam and written, composed and performed by Jaram Lee.
Staged on an almost bare stage, Lee plays over a dozen different characters using little more than a change in voice or stance, as well as narrating the story, filling in the gaps between Brecht’s scenes. Performed in Korean with surtitles projected at the rear of the stage, the story is told in a contemporary language peppered with a slight over-formality akin to Brecht’s own linguistic desire for the play, and it is quite funny at times, when Lee steps slightly outside the theatrical frame of the story to comment on the nature of performing, or draws attention to the timeless nature of Brecht’s story about war. Yet despite being alone on the stage – apart from three musicians – the stage never feels empty. There is a richness in Lee’s performance, a clarity and emotional power which fills the space and works upon us to create a deeply affecting and visceral piece of theatre.
The music, performed by the band, straddles the musical space between traditional pansori accompaniment and a more contemporary approach to incidental music. Brecht’s songs are given robust and colourful life in an energy not dissimilar to those found in rock songs, and there is something deeply moving about the irony and dramatic gusto with which these songs are played.
As in Brecht’s narrative, Ukchuk-ga is about one woman’s struggle to survive whilst caught in the middle of war, as sides and allegiances change, as right and wrong are constantly being negotiated time and again. Neither explicitly anti-war or pro-war, it is rather about war, and the devastating impact it has upon our lives, behaviour, and humanity, and the lengths we are driven to in order to survive. It is also about the futility of war, the expense and nature of greed and opportunistic cunning, our inability to learn from war and the way we are doomed to repeat it over and again ad infinitum. Lee’s performance here is charged with each and every one of these ideas, as she changes into and out of her dozen or so characters’ bodies and mannerisms, and as the play builds to its unforgiveable conclusion, we cannot help but be caught up in the sheer enormity of the emotion, the inevitability of the circumstances. The final moments of the penultimate scene – as Courage’s daughter Choosun stands before the drum on the roof of the cottage, beating a warning to the castle and villagers – are staged upstage against the backdrop, drenched in light. Expertly switching between Choosun and the soldiers, Lee draws us completely into the story; as Choosun drums, the soldiers take aim, and as she falls, the backdrop – drenched in blood-red light – falls away in a breathtaking kabuki drop, leaving Lee alone in a crumpled heap, in a pool of golden light. Her howl – as Choosun, as Courage, as every casualty of war past present and future – rips the theatre open and we are stunned into silence, exhilarated and emotionally drained.

Stepping outside the theatrical frame once more, Lee delivers a meta-theatrical epilogue of sorts – akin to that which Rosalind says at the end of As You Like It – before donning Courage’s mantle once more, and dragging her wagon up the ramp, walking into the bigness of the golden light, the unexpected virtue of ignorance all-encompassing. Having learnt nothing, Courage can only continue as she always has done.

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