Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Melding elements of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the Oriental legend of the White Fox, South Korean company YVUA ARTS examines the nature of power, desire and corruption. With stunning physical movement, inventive storytelling and live drumming, this show is well worth a watch for anyone interested in a version of Shakespeare outside the Western tradition.
Many of you may, like me, be quite familiar with the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth but less so with the legend of the White Fox which is popular throughout Korea, China and Japan. A kumiho is a fox which lives for a thousand years, living nine lives and eating the livers of unsuspecting humans. In this version, the fox has eaten 999 livers and must capture one more – that of the King – before it can finally become human.
The Artist, an imposing Amazon-like figure who paints blood-red circles on the floor and back wall using a pitchfork with a paintbrush attached to each prong, is intent on finishing her Art of Darkness. She brings forth the fox (with the performer making an impressive entrance covered in plastic) and instructs it to collect the liver of the king. Her harlequin-esque minions also serve as the witches in one of the few scenes in which the dialogue and action is recognisably from Macbeth.
Certain aspects of the story are a little obscure and would probably become clearer with more familiarity with the specific White Fox story they’ve based their retelling on (something I was unable to find with a quick online search). However, in my opinion this doesn’t interfere with the appreciation of the piece.
The performers’ impressive physicality allows them to embody a range of characters – the grotesque witches, slinky foxes, commanding warriors and Shakespeare’s fool-like shaman. One particularly beautiful sequence involves a performer who plays both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth being confronted by their other half, both performers mirroring each other’s movement until they finally embrace and become one. The clever way these performers portray both sides of the Macbeth / Lady Macbeth argument about whether to kill the king raises questions about gender roles, power dynamics and the idea of good versus evil or light versus dark.
The direction by Yveyi Yi (who also wrote and designed the show) shows careful attention to each element, with lighting, props, costume and live music creating a dark, twisted and at times cacophonic world. At times it is loud and abrasive and at times slow and quiet, such as a scene where the Artist slowly unravels a bundle of string for what seems like an eternity and yet is utterly absorbing to watch. Moments of unexpected humour, including references to The Lion King and a meta-theatrical name-drop of Shakespeare himself, are welcome interjections to the dark tone.
My main criticism of the piece may, I freely admit, stem from the fact that I’m approaching it from my own cultural perspective which values psychological analysis and complexity of character. The “evil” characters in this piece come across as just that – evil, pure and simple, without an internal struggle or conflict – and this at times renders them merely caricatures. I lost count of the number of times an actor gave a manic “evil laugh” which borders on camp. Rendering Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as nothing more than tools in the Artist’s plan removes some of the most interesting elements of Shakespeare’s tale – the human ambition and greed which drives them and their free will and responsibility for the choices that they make, but it does allow for a deeper investigation and prioritisation of the supernatural elements in the story.
Whether you think the piece benefits from pulling together these two different stories and theatrical traditions, it certainly provides an interesting insight into the nature of darkness and the desire to be something more than one is. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of physical theatre.