You For Me For You (Royal Court theatre)
We in the West know little of North Korea, and they, in turn, know little of us. Media machines on both sides distort the pictures, so while North Korea, to us, seems like a cray-cray commie dictatorship, America, to them, is a bloodthirsty imperialist bastard. You For Me For You gives us a fresh perspective on both.
At heart, Mia Chung‘s play is a fable: two sisters split up by circumstance. Junhee (Katie Leung) makes it across the border, out of North Korea and on to America, while the frail Minhee (Wendy Kweh) gets left behind, stuck – perhaps metaphorically, perhaps not – at the bottom of a well.
Both end up on Alice and Wonderland style trips. Minhee, hallucinating from hunger, goes searching for her husband and son, and encounters singing rice cookers and frog soldiers en route. Attempting to build credit with the regime, she picks Kimjongilia flowers and paints the trees in perfect greens. Only North Korea is Kafkaesque: each time she goes to cash in her chips, the system shifts.
Chung’s America is no less absurd. Everyone speaks in phonetic gobbledigook: "Hoduzzy endazo tay sliss," says a patient rejecting hospital food. As Junhee’s ears adjust, sense slowly returns. It’s a brilliant device, played to deadpan perfection by Daisy Haggard, making the over-familiar odd.
It’s not just that basic American rituals – diet fads and sports fans – become culturally bizarre, but that our Western assumptions and aspirations do too. As Junhee slides, cautiously, into a relationship with an Alabama accountant (Paapa Essiedu), she starts to dream the American dream, and every bit of it – kids, house, travel, acclaim – seems warped. In the background, her sister cries out for kimchi.
Under Supreme Leader Vicky Featherstone, the tiny Upstairs studio has become a TARDIS. Director Richard Twyman delivers a main-house show in miniature; his third outstanding production of the year (after Fireworks here and Harrogate at HighTide). Jon Bausor’s mirrored stage makes a kaleidoscope of North Korea, but also suggests the warp speed of American life, while Tal Rosner’s videos bring the two Wonderlands to life. Eddie Kay’s pinpoint choreography compacts epic journeys right down to standing: all the sisters do to flee for their lives is hold hands as tightly as possible.
At times, all this risks drowning out the actors. Leung is demure but determined as Junhee, solidifying as she adjusts to America, while Kweh looks genuinely harrowed as her starving sister. You don't need to be Kay Burley to see the sadness in her eyes.
For all its pleasing surrealism, however, Chung’s play is too bitty to really satisfy. At only 90 minutes, its scenes struggle to be more than sketches and we end up skimming the surface, none the wiser about the realities of life in North Korea. The psychedelia proves both thinly illustrative and deeply obscurative. In fact the play’s richest at its straightest: starving, Minhee visits a state-sanctioned doctor for "the best available care on earth." As her condition visibly deteriorates, both have to maintain the façade of "the best nation in the world." Both know better. They just can’t say. Is America half so self-aware?
You For Me For You runs at the Royal Court until 9 January.