International theatre has always been a key component of Edinburgh Fringe. Yet, for most visitors, the prospect of watching a play in a foreign language is more than a tad daunting. The bilingual production of
A jumble of plot and performance too disjointed for the English-speaking audience to grasp
Girl invites us into the household of a Korean family, thrown into despair by the arrival of a granddaughter they didn’t even know existed. The granddaughter, a Japanese stranger who uses a translator to communicate with her Korean relatives, bears news of her mother, who was taken from her family home at the age of twelve by Japanese soldiers. What follows is a harrowing description of the mother’s life as a ‘comfort girl’: a sex slave of World War II, abused and forced into bed with up to 50 men a day. The interwoven blend of Korean and English gives this often grotesque story a sombre slowness. This shocking, undiscussed national history, passed from the young woman to the ears of her horrified relatives through a translator, is here delicately handled.
The exploration of what it means to communicate was perhaps the strongest aspect of the show. Though the cast’s delivery of English was, as it always is to we monolingual Brits, exceptionally impressive, the emotionally-charged Korean dialogue was often the most compelling, thanks to the excellently expressive ensemble cast. A number of stirring, language-free performances peppered the show with the potential to be as theatrically poignant as it was culturally interesting. Yet rather than linger on this interesting story of sadness, or explore the identity of the comfort girl beyond the gruesome things done to her, the script sends us off in the direction of either multiple rounds of competitive hysteria, or bizarre moments of attempted comedy. Perhaps audience alienation was intentional; but the unsubtle interruption of a beautiful traditional funeral scene with a painted clown is more irritating than moving. What began as a confusing but clever exploration of how people can, despite barriers, overcome the atrocities of the past, turned into a jumble of plot and performance too disjointed for the English-speaking audience to grasp.
The cast of Girl are gifted communicators which is the very essence of what an audience can ask of an actor. The cause of our confusion lay not in the language barriers, but in indecisive script and direction.