Kokdu: The Soul Mate

Kokdu: Soul Mate is physical theatre with charm, humour and a supernatural frisson inspired by Korean shamanistic rites and belief in the Kokdu, a spirit guide who accompanies the deceased to the afterlife. It tells the story of a dying old lady and her squabbling grown-up children who are fighting over her will. Shadowplay, scary masks, colourful traditional costumes including wonderful hats with swirling long streamers and stylised acting all give this production a distinctive quality but it’s a shame that incoherent storytelling means that western audiences will find some elements hard to follow.

Much to recommend but quite a bit of rewriting and tweaking of the opening exposition before western audiences will fully appreciate this production.

Owl hoots, eerie music and threatening hands silhouetted on a screen, doubling as the house’s doorway, create a spooky atmosphere as grotesque masks, evil spirits, float about. Two characters in tall wide-brimmed hats arrive but to westerners it’s not clear who they are. If they arrived with the Kokdu we might gather they are his assistants, come to cleanse the house of the evil spirits but unfortunately, there’s a gap before he appears.

Also since a Kokdu guides the deceased to the afterlife, it’s a bit confusing when the old lady appears still very much alive. Perhaps scenes with her family that follow are flashbacks? Or maybe this is just the last few days of her life?

Once her family enter, however, the story is clear. A few English words are provided (‘will’ and ‘money’) but are not really needed as their miming is so expressive. The highlight of the show is these stereotypical characters, reminiscent of commedia dell arte: the old lady with her high-pitched chirruping who hawks and spits (though perhaps she overdoes this) and her three grown-up children, two brothers and a sister. Their hilarious facial expressions and tonal range of their voices, rising on a scale almost like singing is extraordinary, and the slapstick and lightning changes of mood are highly polished. One's heart goes out to the old lady as she climbs on top of the table or under it in fear of the evil spirits and there is a particularly moving scene when her daughter spits in her mother’s food.

When the Kokdu does finally arrive, with white painted face and black hat topped by a large white pom pom, he is particularly sinister as he sniffs the audience. The white ribbons representing the bier are a beautifully visual image and the eerie music and wails throughout the show are effective. So there is much to recommend but quite a bit of rewriting and tweaking of the opening exposition before western audiences will fully appreciate this production.

Reviews by Stephanie Green

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The Blurb

Come and experience Korean storytelling at its very best. Inspired by Korean traditional shamanistic rituals and beliefs, Kokdu is a visually stunning storytelling performance that encompasses traditional folk songs and movement with exotic Korean mask and shadow work along with beautiful costumes. Traditionally, Kokdu is a wooden figurine that accompanies and guides the dead to their afterlife providing friendship, companionship, spiritual guidance, protection and entertainment along the way. A positive reflection on the idea that death should be celebrated as the spirit finds peace in its final resting place.

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