A narrative highlighting the differences between insular East Asia and the apparently more gregarious West: hasn’t this been done before? There’s Chimerica, which got a deserved West End transfer from the Almeida Theatre in 2013. Decades before that there was the musical The King and I, and going further back, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, first performed in 1904. But there’s more to You For Me For You than just crossing borders (as there is in the other productions mentioned, just to be clear on that point).
Here, there are choices that sisters Minhee (Wendy Kweh) and Junhee (Katie Leung) must make. The exact circumstances make the North Korean setting appropriate, but such is the personal nature of the decisions they must work out that it is almost too easy to empathise with their moral dilemmas. But, the play is never overly political, remaining almost relentlessly focused on the sisters’ situations.
There are neither surprises nor spoilers (well, not really) in how North Korea is presented and compared to New York City. Junhee, fortunate enough to have a ‘green card’ that permits her to make a living in the United States, almost predictably (if sufficiently amusingly) struggles with American English, at least at first – Daisy Haggard as Liz does a sterling job of speaking scripted jibberish so very convincingly. Although Junhee’s character development falls far behind her language development, I felt the downsides to American life were dealt with sensitively, and stopped the play from too simplistically asserting (however subtly) that all things American are good, and all things non-American not so good.
However, I’m not entirely convinced that going into a third dimension was all that helpful. Putting in a land of rice musicians and bears seemed to me a little laboured, insofar as it presents to the audience an unnecessarily unsubtle near-parody of how North Korea views itself. “We get it. They’re deluded in Pyongyang,” I thought to myself. Still, I suppose we can never be reminded enough times what a privilege it is to be in a liberal democracy: the alternatives, I occasionally forget, are considerably worse.
That the play is not presented entirely in chronological order keeps the audience’s minds engaged – it may come across as a bit random to begin with, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s carefully constructed. Some of the scenes change incredibly quickly, and rather like the set of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, bits of set are pulled out from the sides of the stage with great efficiency. ‘Efficiency’ is the operative word here – if you like your plays blisteringly fast-paced and over all too soon, this show is for you.
This is an engrossing play that, although at times seems to be trying too hard to pack in too many threads and subplots, reminds us that there is seldom, if ever, gain without pain. Anyone who has ever stepped out into the unknown can understand the feelings being expressed in this production. As the Smuggler (Andrew Leung) puts it, “There is always a sacrifice.” There’s something in its sheer unconventional style that makes You For Me For You a compelling piece. It explains, I think, the cheering and whooping at curtain call: despite its setting, it’s very different to many plays and therefore, it’s refreshing viewing.
Review by Chris Omaweng
YOU FOR ME FOR YOU
By Mia Chung
3rd December to 9th January 2016
Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
You For Me For You by Mia Chung
-Trees don’t have ears.
-How are you so sure?
As they attempt to flee the Best Nation in the World, North Korean sisters Minhee and Junhee are torn apart at the border. Each must race across time and space to be together again – navigating the perilous Land of the Free and the treacherous terrain of personal belief.
Food has learned to sprint. Money is so fast it doesn’t wait to be printed. Gossip travels swifter than germs.
Mia Chung’s play has its UK première in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Royal Court Associate Director (International) Richard Twyman directs.
ROYAL COURT THEATRE
London SW1W 8AS