I have something a little different today – I wanted to share my experience seeing a play recently. I have always wanted to see more theatre – my Royal Shakespeare Company discount card and loyalty card remain unused at the moment! This was a short-notice event for me but I don’t regret a second.
Orange Polar Bear is a play made in collaboration between British and Korean acting organisations, including The REP itself, the National Theater Company of Korea, Hanyong Theatre and Birmingham City University. It ran from the 1st-10th of November, and I saw some tweets a few days in and spontaneously decided to snap up some of the last few tickets for the 9th for myself and a friend. As both of us are interested in Korean culture, it was a great opportunity to act on our interests on a local scale.
It was my first time at the theatre. It’s wedged in between the Library of Birmingham and the ICC, and sometimes you can’t see it above all of the construction happening in the Paradise Circus area at the moment. Its also connected to the Library via the ground floor, where you can kill some time before or after a show… in the daytime, anyway – it closes early, unfortunately.
From this point, this review contains spoilers, although to my knowledge this play won’t be running any more, unfortunately.
The play is about two teenagers, William and Jiyoung in the UK and Korea respectively, who are frustrated with their current lives, trying to navigate their personal lives while taking a peek at each others’. They express their worries and fears for the future both personally and on a bigger scale throughout the play. They feel distant from their lives as they live it, demonstrated by how they speak in the third person during their monologues.
The set was quite sparse, featuring a clean white background with doors and an upper platform, and clear perspex boxes used as seats and icebergs. We loved seeing projections of microwave contents and TV screens on the white doors, and the clean set allowed the play to move seamlessly between the UK and Korea and blend the two when needed.
I found it interesting that all the supporting cast spoke their native language no matter what scenes (Korean or English language) they were in, adding to the bilingualism of the play and allowing audiences speaking either language to understand the other through context. My friend and I were a bit nervous about whether subtitles would be provided, and the answer was both yes and no. There were sections left entirely up to the context that we understood well regardless, with the help of the emotive cast.
I was surprised to see school groups coming to see the play. In truth, it probably is a really interesting play for teenagers to watch especially as the main characters are also teens. Sometimes I wish my school had been more interested in promoting local theatre and experimental pieces like this. Not that I regret being able to see Hamlet live, but I wasn’t fully aware of the scope of theatre back then outside of Shakespeare, musicals and historically based pieces. Smaller pieces like this one, that take a chance of me stumbling upon them… those are what I’d like to see more of. I’ll have to keep my eyes open now.
The plot itself was quite simple, yet also unexpected in the way it twisted and built up until the peak. As William and Jiyoung are almost always present on stage, aware of each other, we see what is happening to them as well as their reactions to each other’s lives. The duality of the plot helped to make it much more interesting. On a screen, I probably would not have thought twice before losing interest but in person, I got so immersed in it.
Also… I now totally stan Minju Kim and am looking forward to her future projects. The only issue being that it’s hard to Google her because there is a member of IZ*ONE with the same name! As Jiyoung, Minju Kim was so endearing and loveable. My friend and I agreed that the Korean cast, in particular, were fantastic. Cheongim Kang’s mini dance to Power Up by Red Velvet was a little fun alongside hearing Stormzy in the previous segment, like a musical trade. She switched between the role of idol schoolgirl Taehee and Jiyoung’s grandmother, two drastically different roles, so well! Ahron Hong’s performance as Jiyoung’s father was also really touching, and made me think of my own father and how he expresses himself.
That’s not to say the British cast weren’t also great. Rasaq Kukyoki and Tahirah Sharif had the audience invested in William and Sarah’s relationship – with what I could tell from the little gasps and laughs heard from behind me. Michael Kodwiw was less present, but this was not felt when we saw him as William’s friend Arthur and Sarah’s father. I only truly realised it now as I am typing.
Overall, this was a beautiful, curious experience worth getting up earlier for. As a British Vietnamese young adult, I saw so much of my own experiences reflected in both the Korean and British portions of the play, in a strange way, and I think many others will also be able to relate to it, too. In the future, I’d love to see more collaborations between Birmingham theatre and theatre abroad, as well as more bilingual pieces.