Unlike the marvellous Taipei King Lear for which the reviews have been mixed, those for this Korean production of The Tempest have been pretty uniformly positive. I was not as beguiled as some, and I was especially baffled (and I suspect many of the rest of the audience would have been too given the thinness of laughter) at the review quotation posted outside which proclaimed this show to be a laugh a minute.
To be fair there is beauty, tenderness, and humour in this production. As with much of the other eastern fare at this year's Festival there is an attention to the visual look of a piece of a much higher order than in many western productions. The manner of Prospero's use of magic with fans and brush-like trees, the white cloths waving wildly from every hand to mark the storm, the sudden appearance of red fans in a fire dance, the torments of Ferdinand are all magically realised. Similarly the invention of some of the acting – the cast masquerade as a whole variety of animals summoned to assist Ariel and the drumming which marks the wedding celebration show what this device can achieve when used intelligently. The young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand are genuine and moving. When she talks about long lasting love as being like two tall buildings (it's actually much more poetic than this but I can't now recall the exact lines) and makes him stand up still just holding hands not looking at each other it was very touching.
And yet there are also stretches where interest flags, and more of them than in King Lear. There seems to be something of an attempt to mock the adult figures, especially Prospero and Alonso. This works quite well with Prospero, but poorly with Alonso who becomes so ridiculous one can't quite see how he has ever held onto his throne. Generally the scenes with Alonso's party drag most and, in particular, the effectiveness of the portrayal of the Ferdinand-Miranda and Prospero-Miranda relationships is not carried over into the power struggles around thrones and dukedoms. I suspect the aim here may have been to point up the emptiness of these adult concerns but it doesn't quite come off.
But there's also a more fundamental problem. This is that The Tempest actually is not a comedy. There is humour in it, but there is also much more, shipwreck, death threats, revenge – the darker human passions are very definitely there. Hsing-kuo's King Lear absolutely got at those deeper meanings, this reimagining, for me, ultimately misses them. And this is I think the real test for a reimagined classic, or a deconstructed classic, or whatever the proper term is thought to be. Does it succeed, if you know the original, in making you lay aside your preconceptions and surrender to a new vision of the work? The King Lear achieved this, The Tempest ultimately doesn't manage it.