Migration is at the heart of You For Me For You, a play about sisters trying to escape from North Korea.
It’s by Korean-American writer, Mia Chung. Some of the actors are migrants (Kwong Loke and Wendy Kweh) or children of migrants (Katie Leung). And two North Korean defectors who live in Britain spent a day with the cast when they were rehearsing at London’s Royal Court theatre.
In a post-show audience discussion, Chung recalled how matter-of-factly the pair talked about “horrific experiences”, without displaying emotion. She said it made her realise how easy it is to “walk past a person and never know what they have been through and what they carry in them.”
The conversations between the visitors and the cast resulted in changes in the script.
Chung also mused about a repeated word in the play – uttered by the people smuggler who is about to lead the sisters over the border: sacrifice. “There’s always a sacrifice,” the smuggler warns.“ In the audience discussion Chung echoes the phrase, observing that “That will always be the case in any immigrant story.
“Even my parents [who migrated from South Korea to the US] lost something of themselves, especially when learning a new language.”
The loss can be enormous, and that’s one reason, she said, for the survival of the North Korean regime – “If you are caught [escaping], North Korea will often take three generations of a family.
You For Me For You plays surreally with time and imagination, which isn’t surprising given that Chung has been working on it or years, halted further performances after its premiere in the US, re-worked it before this production at London’s Royal Court Theatre – and admits “It’s a wildly different play from the one we began rehearsing”. (“I hate to tell you this,” she told director Richard Twyman in the post-performance discussion, “but I might have more revisions to make.”)
It’s essentially a simple story about staying in the North or fleeing to the West and the differences between life in a hermetically sealed dictatorship and in a self-obsessed, choice-burdened capitalist society.
Why use surrealism? Because, says Chung, “imagination is the most faithful way of getting at what’s going on in North Korea.”
But that simple idea is conveyed in two lifetimes, settings that include the bottom of a well and a baseball game, and some very odd goings-on. The writing is crisp, the acting excellent (though Daisy Haggard steals the show with her wondrous gobbledegook but comprehensible streams of American English), and the constantly morphing set and lighting that’s surely up for an award.
Carried along by the sheer fun of the whole presentation I have only one caveat - the content. The depictions of both North Korea and the US have little new to say, with the pleasure coming from the originality of the way it is said rather than from fresh insights.
• You For Me For You is at the Royal Court, £20/£10, Sloane Square, SW1 until 9 January. Info: 7565 5000/ http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/
+ Also on North Korea: 5-30 January , P'Yonyang, a love story of North Korean childhood sweethearts spanning three decades, Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, SW10. Info: 0844 847 1652/ www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk until 30 January