Sell Me: I Am From North Korea/The Separation (Theatre Review)

Sell Me: I Am From North Korea/The Separation (Theatre Review)


The announcement last weekend of the finalists for the 2023 Scenesaver Birthday Honours Awards provided a salutary reminder that it had been quite some while since I had investigated the ever expanding number of performances which this resource provides. I had been a regular visitor during the pandemic but the return of live theatre has meant my attention being drawn elsewhere – well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. A quick trawl through the available material ensured that a number of productions caught my eye and, as one of the characters in The Mikado has it, I now “have a little list”. I thought I’d get the ball (re)rolling with a couple of pieces.


The first, Sell Me: I Am From North Korea, I chose for two reasons. Firstly, because it has been shortlisted for two awards this year (Best Play and Best Lead Performance) almost certainly guaranteeing a measure of quality. Secondly, having just come back from a Far East holiday which included a couple of days in South Korea the title, not unnaturally, seemed to beckon. I’d found during my brief time in the country that its northern neighbour was rarely mentioned though it was evident that an element of tension about the countries relationship pervades the population. Questioning our guide about the situation merely drew many smiles and placatory nods but no real information or opinion was forthcoming. Of course we in the West have been presented consistently with North Korea as a famously repressive and highly secretive regime led by a dictatorship founded on personality. South Korean writer/actor Sora Baek examines the effects of this regime on an ordinary citizen – a young girl living near the Chinese border who defects, via a circuitous route, to the south. She does so in the hope that she get some relief for her mother’s health issues.

download 1Baek’s script, heavily based on testimony from women who have actually escaped, is in no way didactic but the viewer is left in little doubt about the extreme repressiveness of the North Korean authorities and why people wish to flee from what she describes as “living in the most horrendous country in the world”. Even when the protagonist has crossed out of North Korea, there is little initial sense of freedom and release as she finds herself used and abused by the men she encounters and yet another system based on the cult of personality – Christianity. Acts of brutality and degradation are movingly described and enacted on a bare stage with the only prop being a piece of luggage. This seems to symbolise the burden of the past/memory and is tellingly used to dramatic effect by an actor evidently full of passion and a burning sense of anger for the perpetrated injustices. I was pleased to learn a little more about a county I was so near to but will almost certainly never visit and Baek’s inclusion on Scenesaver’s Best Lead Performance shortlist is eminently justified.

download (1)From a piece which might win an award in a few days’ time, I turned to one which may well appear in next year’s shortlist. The Separation is a highly intense 17 minute monodrama written by Dan Horrigan and Haven Taranta which examines the theme of identity or, in this case, identities. Nathalia Campbell Smith performs as Sheila, a young theatre worker from north London who shares an apparently happy existence with flatmate Carla an aspiring writer and pragmatist. When Sheila’s workplace IT system is hacked there seems to be a connection which suggests that Carla may not be all she seems. And indeed she isn’t. To say more would mean spoilers and as the piece relies on gradual revelation for its effect I’ll say no more; that said, it is not particularly hard to guess where this is going.

separationFraser Watson’s filming and framing is excellently done drawing us into Sheila’s highly disturbing world. The opening and subsequent sections are filmed in extreme close up focusing just on the actor’s mouth in a manner which instantly recalls Samuel Beckett’s Not I. There is no avoiding the narrative and its intensity. Layered onto the actor’s carefully modulated and increasingly urgent delivery there is a strong sense of the fractured personality which is placed under the microscope. I’d be surprised if this piece isn’t up for an award this time next year.

The Scenesaver Birthday Honours Awards are announced on May 28th at 7.00pm. A full list of finalists can be found here

Sell Me: I Am From North Korea and The Separation are both available via Scenesaver; click here

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