The BeSeTo Festival is Back to Splendid Life in Shenzhen

Kalina Stefanova*


The text is an account of the renewed BeSeTo festival in its first post-pandemic edition in Shenzhen, China. It presents its main characteristics, while touching upon the history of this unique transnational theatre endeavour, initiated in 1994 as the festival of China, South Korea and Japan. The main focus is on the productions of the first festival week, some of which belong to genres listed by UNESCO as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage – Pansori opera and Kunqu opera. Other critics’ response to them is also used as a spring-board. Interwoven in the texture of the article is an attempt at finding some common or contrasting points between the theatre in the West and that of China, South Korea and Japan.

Keywords: BeSeTo, Shenzhen, post-pandemic theatre, Pansori, Kunqu, Shanghai Grand Theatre, Ipkoason Studio, CREDO Theatre

During the last three weeks of November 2023, a special poster adorned the facades and marquees of the main theatres of Shenzhen – the megapolis, known as the Silicon valley of China, or the city of youth, thanks to the 32.5 years average age of its nearly 18 million citizens. At first sight the poster looked rather conventional, with the usual attributes for a theatre poster arranged in a nicely proportional composition.

A gray horizontal staircase, occupying entirely the lower part and nearly a quarter of the rectangular space, and a huge ochre-colored theatre curtain, opened slightly in the middle, form a triangle of light with two finely rounded sides. There, fully immersed in the light, stands the brownish-tinged figure of a man, with his back to us, having just reached the top of the stairs. Two other figures behind him, wearing floating, brownish cloaks, are still going up – their heads and the top of their torsos already lit too, with their feet still outside of the spotlight. The well captured movement of the bodies and the palpable feel of the light literally engulfing them, along with the very placing of the figures in the whole composition, make the trio the focus of the poster.

Yet, if you were to take your eyes off the three “actors” caught taking center stage, and if you were also to slightly squeeze your eyes, as if looking at  double-image pictures, you’d see something completely different, something that has nothing to do with a normal theatre poster. Instead, something very reminiscent of one of the most widely used emoticons in the Chinese WeChat telephone appliance: a pair of hands, with joined palms pointing upwards, in a sign of gratitude. 

It is that many-layered-ness of the poster that made it special. By managing to “say” many things at once it captured the essence of the events which it summarized and promoted. Events in plural, since during the three weeks in question, three festivals were organized and run simultaneously in Shenzhen: the 9th China Campus Theatre Festival, the 27th BeSeTo Theatre Festival and the 2023 Nanshan Theatre festival. [Hence the three figures climbing the stairs!] And the very fact that such a bouquet of festivals was transpiring after the three-year pandemic gap in the theatre calendar of China was at once a reason for being grateful and a way for expressing gratitude. Gratitude for life getting back to normal at long last, and for theatre being back in people’s life.

BeSeTo, the international one of the three festivals, is very special in its own right. It is not simply a Chinese international theatre event but a festival, or rather the festival, of China, South Korea and Japan altogether [yet another possible meaning of the trio on the poster], organized in turn by and in each one of them since its inception in 1994. It was originally held respectively in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, thus its name being formed by their first syllables. Later on it started “migrating” to other cities in the three countries.

In 2020 it was China’s turn to hold BeSeTo but it was cancelled because of the pandemic and, thus, the gap in the numbers which would have otherwise reached the point for the big 30th jubilee. In 2023, the Festival was the very first international event organized by the China Theatre Association after the end of pandemic. And the Festival’s organisers offered a fine blend of subtlety and panache, very appropriate for the situation we, as human beings, faced in 2023 as we made our first careful steps back to normality, and celebrating it with great excitement and at full steam.

The trailer of the three festivals: the 8th China Campus Theatre Festival, the 27th BeSeTo Theatre Festival and the 2023 Nanshan Theatre festival

Actually, BeSeTo itself was created with the aim of helping the three founding countries come back to normality, which in their case meant overcoming the traumas of their really painful past – a history of wars, occupations, large-scale slaughters and unspeakable abuses. And the Festival has indeed made a valuable contribution, having inspired and instigated further cooperation between China, Korea and Japan. Something very well demonstrated this year in co-productions included in the program, as well as in a large-scale Theatre Forum with a considerable participation of theatre-makers, critics and scholars from the three countries.

I myself had the privilege of attending one of BeSeTo’s first editions, in Seoul in 1997, and will never forget the experience in the moon-lit Korean capital, as the festival took place during the special Asian holiday of the September Full Moon. Then too it was one of a number of theatre events, including the Theatre of Nations, and the city was transformed into a huge showcase for the best theatre from around the world.

The previous year I had seen in London my first Asian show, Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by the magician director Yukio Ninagawa, and had  fallen under the spell of Asian theatre. One of the features I found most striking in that show was the harmony between flesh and spirit, the material and the immaterial on stage. I still remember the magic of the falling rose petals and the thin strips of sand, marking at once the enchanted forest, and the connection between heaven and earth, the stones that turned out to be spirits from Titania’s entourage, the other-worldly beauty of the costumes of Oberon and Titania. And then, suddenly, a smell of food filling the air and, on the same stone field, someone cooking on a real portable gas stove, and a group of men on bikes and motorbikes bursting in to eat and talk about rehearsals…  then back to the magic and again back to earthly matters. All making up an inseparable entity, like the work of all great theatremakers.

The poster of the three festivals: the 8th China Campus Theatre Festival, the 27th BeSeTo Theatre Festival and the 2023 Nanshan Theatre festival. Photo: Courtesy of CTA (China Theatre Association)

At that 4th BeSeTo in Seoul I was able to soak myself in plenty of Asian theatre on the spot, revelling in more of that extraordinary ease of genres crossing borders, spilling into each other and intertwining in the framework of one show. This fusion of the two classical theatre masks astonished me because of the ease with which it transpired. The balance of the serious and the funny, too, was so precise that the ensuing harmony had literally a soothing effect.

There too, I found out that Asian theatre featured one more strikingly harmonious “couple”: the world of the living and the world of the dead dwelling in a matter-of-fact manner, at times even sprinkled with a grain of humor.

Between that Korean edition of BeSeTo, over 25 years ago, and the latest one now, in Shenzhen, I have been blessed with plenty of opportunities to see more theatre in China, Korea and Japan and the same harmonious co-existence of the inhabitants of the visible and the invisible world on stage has not eased its spell on me. I still find it one of the most fascinating aspects of theatre there, so different from mainstream Western theatre and its drama of loss.

Of course, this stems from the differences between the prevalent perceptions of life and death of the West and the East. In general, Western thinking is so grounded in the material that it imbues the very knowledge of the transience of human life with a tragic hue, even an unpleasant taste of mortality and decay. The very thought of the short span of our life not only stirs up sorrow in Westerners but breeds discontent, even indignation, as if at the face of an utmost injustice. And, naturally, all this is reflected on stage.

The very opposite feeling, I find, tends to be exuded by the theatre I’ve seen in these three Asian countries. One gets the feeling that human life is simply a part of the constant transfusion of the material into the immaterial and back, so that death doesn’t feel insurmountably tragic. This may explain why in the hands of some Chinese, South Korean and Japanese directors Western classics feel so different.

It seems to me that they, at their best, tend to elevate the art of communicating with the audience to a level akin more to the way music and painting communicate with their audiences. It is not so much the twists and turns of the plot and the feelings of the characters that are of prime importance, instead it is the very manner in which all that is related and transmitted. Namely, the accent is on the mastery of acting, singing, and playing an instrument, in order to get the viewers attuned to the fine frequencies of the spiritual world, while the plot remains just a mere vehicle – so to speak, the setting of the table for all this to happen. To me this partly explains why Chinese, South Korean and Japanese theatre seldom offers the classical catharsis of Western drama.

Also, there is a tendency for it to approach story-telling as fable-telling. Thus, it does not shy away from offering a clear moral – something which is more and more sniffed at in the West. In my eyes, it tends to tell stories as classical epics do: in a tranquil and overwhelmingly beautiful manner, and with a special type of panache.

Beauty, poetry, wisdom and exquisiteness – these features intrinsic to the best examples of art and theatre in China, South Korea and Japan, were manifested on stage during the first week of the 2023 Shenzhen edition of BeSeTo, which I had the chance to attend. The whole three-week program consisted of 12 productions: 6 Chinese, 2 Korean and 2 Japanese, as well as 1 from each of the two guest countries – Bulgaria and Georgia.

Other features which emerged as common to the bulk of these shows were a significant role of music, a refined simplicity of stage expression, and a strong presence of the fairy-tale universe in the related stories. Most importantly: the bulk of these shows made a bow to tradition while at the same time intertwining new elements in its venerable fabric in a markedly delicate and refined manner, and with the use, in some cases, of remarkable imagination. The latter felt especially in sync with the spirit and ambiance of Shenzhen – built in only 43 years from a small fishing village into one of the three biggest and most modern cities of China, home of stunning modern architecture and of a unique Center for Science and Human Imagination.

Six Chapters of a Floating Life, directed by Ma Junfeng, Shanghai Grand Theatre, China. Photo: Courtesy of CTA (China Theatre Association)

BeSeTo 2023 started on a high note: with a beautiful and stunningly stylish show – Six Chapters of a Floating Life – based on a famous classical work and staged in the beloved kunqu genre (one of the numerous Chinese operas). The original work, an autobiography by Shen Fun (1763-1825), is considered one of very few detailed accounts of ordinary people’s life of the time. It was lost and much later found by accident at a second-hand book stall, and published in a Shanghai newspaper. The current adaptation is by a famed current playwright, Luo Zhou. The production is by the Shanghai Grand Theatre – the first international high-level theatre in China, founded in 1998 and a host since then to musicians like Domingo, Pavarotti, and Careras, orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, and shows by grand-masters like Peter Brook.

Accidentally, several months before I saw Six Chapters of a Floating Life in Shenzhen, I had come across an article about it, in the digital magazine Sixth Tone, written by Chen Tian, a highly respected critic and colleague from Nanjing University.[1] So I was very well prepared, as her text provided an excellent background to the show. 

The kunqu opera, as I learned from Prof. Chen, was from mid 14th c. till mid 15th c.  the most popular of the many traditional Chinese operas. Some of the pivotal Chinese classics, like The Peony Pavilion, were adapted and presented as kunqu. Then, overshadowed by the Beijing and Shaanxi operas, its fame declined and towards the end of the 20th c. it reached the point when there were only about 800 performers and 7 companies practising it. In 2001  the inclusion of the opera in UNESCO’s list of masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage resulted in an upsurge of its productions and a regaining of its former status as one of the most sought out genres, especially by “the middle class and educated young people who see it as a way to signify their taste and discernment.” (Chen Tian)

Paradoxically, it seems that exactly the regained fame of kunqu has inadvertently become the cloud in a silver lining, as it is in the selling out to the commercial and in the catering to popular taste where Prof. Chen finds the source of the main flaws of the Shanghai production of Six Chapters of a Floating Life. According to her, the adaptation has significantly distorted the original text by elevating the main characters (the author himself and his beloved wife) to a higher class, while at the same time substantially lowering their age – something which in kunqu genre translates into concrete type of characters (with special types of costume) who are spared all the difficulties the real protagonists went through, as described by the author. Also, the female lead , “a woman who challenged gender norms and lived fully, if not always happily” is turned into an old cliché: “Two centuries later, a female playwright takes that same character and twists her into a shallow foil for her male protagonist,” writes Prof. Chen. “It’s a remarkable betrayal of the source material.”

Another main criticism, with which she finishes her text, is a general conclusion about the current overall state of kunqu opera, which I will take the liberty to quote in its entirety: “These safe, middle-class friendly adaptations of classic texts are increasingly common on Chinese stages and screens. Still, it’s hard not to mourn the missed opportunity here. Kunqu was once for the common people, for the misfits, and the losers. It portrayed the various goings-on of town life and the full spectrum of human emotions. Now, it’s obsessed with the elegance and beauty of traditional life and culture, even at the expense of fidelity to its source material.”

I’m sure Prof. Chen has all the substantial arguments for her criticisms. At the same time, as a foreigner not acquainted with the original work and thus unable to make comparisons with the adaptation, and, most importantly, not being exposed to an avalanche of such productions, I had my heart fully won by the show, exactly because of its beauty and elegance. I literally couldn’t take my eyes off the stage and was riveted by the subtlety and exquisiteness of the set, the costumes, the very movements and behavior of the characters there.

The show’s beauty never trespasses into the territory of lavishness and unnecessary abundance. The only major set-design effect comes from a huge scarf, floating behind the characters half-way above their heads. Serving at once as a background and an embodiment of the floating life (from the title), to me, it was also sort of a continuation of the Chinese characters of the text, displayed electronically on both sides of the stage, with their special flying strokes, as well as of the long sleeves of the characters when ‘shot’ up or aside by the actors, like the ribbons of gymnasts.

It is exactly that feeling of flight which I find at the core of Chinese culture that won me for it some years ago, when I started studying Chinese (alas, only briefly) and when I saw documentaries about Mei Lan Fan and shows of traditional Chinese opera. Back then, when I immersed myself in the world of Chinese hieroglyphs, I understood why they do not form an alphabet, why they can not be locked in a set and lined up and subjected to a strict order once and forever. They are not dwellers of the paper realm only, they just tiptoe on the paper sheets, merely touching it, like ballerinas on pointe shoes in the moment before they get to fly up. And the calligraphers have the hard task of catching at once the hieroglyphs’ imprint – their instantaneous guest performance on the paper sheet – and, even harder, their flight back where they belong – the realm of the spirit. Via the long sleeves of the Chinese operas’ costumes too, the spirit, dwelling within our material body, reaches out towards its motherland, or at least tries to pull towards us something of what we do not see with our human eyes.

And what’s also fascinating to me is that in the feeling of flight and of the consequent unity with the invisible, in these and other elements of  traditional Chinese culture, there is nothing in common with the usual emotion of euphoria or exaltation we so well know. Instead, it is accompanied with a tranquil joy. Like the light and kind-heartedness exuded by the faces of elderly people who are at once good and wise. Or like the feeling of health: when everything in our body is in such a perfect shape that the air around us feels as a natural continuation of our skin.

It is this feeling of dwelling between the earth and the sky that I found exuded by the production of Six Chapters of a Floating Life at the opening of BeSeTo. And, interestingly, even the presence of a clown-character – a sort of matchmaker – didn’t have a grounding affect on it. Instead, it was again beauty and humor walking hand in hand, as in other shows I have seen in China, South Korea and Japan.

One thing I found slightly different from other Chinese operas here was the music. And, indeed, a Chinese colleague confirmed that it is, to an extent, modernized, yet without substantially breaking with the tradition.

In brief, what I felt while watching Six Chapters of a Floating Life in Shenzhen was sort of appeasement, tranquility and, at the same time, elevation.

Poster of Six Chapters of a Floating Life, directed by Ma Junfeng, Shanghai Grand Theatre, China. Photo: Courtesy of CTA (China Theatre Association)

I should underline a very important reason for my unconditional acceptance and appreciation of the show. It is a tendency I have been witnessing in post-pandemic theatre in Europe which seems the very opposite of beauty and exquisiteness: a tendency where physiology vies with spirituality for the center stage. Or rather: physiology more and more gets to be the winner in this rivalry, since this is not a new thing but it has been gaining substantial ground recently. There are numerous examples of this tendency and the coarsening of theatre’s sense of humanity in them is not in the mere display of, or elaboration on, physiology but rather in their thin motivation or lack of motivation whatsoever in the very texture of the shows. Also, it is in the broken connection between flesh and soul on stage, in the, so to speak, “emancipation” of physiology from the spirit. It is exactly this “emancipation” that makes such a kind of theatre, or at least such scenes, appear as merely indulging in physiology, with the effect of a literal denigration of humanity and beauty, boiling down the human being to a piece of mere flesh.

Recently I had the delight to edit in Bulgarian the novel Drum Singers by the famed Chinese contemporary classical playwright Lao She. In it there is a scene where the company of the main protagonist – of the traditional genre of drum singers – opens a new theatre. Part of the audience is seated on tables lining the walls, with their backs to the stage. They sit like that, since they are the real connoisseurs – “they wanted to only listen, without looking and being distracting from the faces of the female singers”, as Lao She writes, expressing the thoughts of the protagonist. I.e. they want to make sure they would appreciate the soul of the show via one of its vehicles – the human voice, and also via the story to be related. For the human voice has a dual citizenship, it dwells in a border territory – that of the material and the immaterial.

I have never seen a Chinese drum singing performance but I feel from its very vivid description by Lao She that it is quite similar to the South Korean Pansori opera, another traditional Asian performing arts genre focused on music-storytelling with performers facing the audience on a nearly bare stage. In 1964, it was declared as Important Intangible Cultural Property of South Korea. Unlike the Chinese drum singers’ performance, though, where the cast could be slightly larger, the original Pansori opera involves just two performers – a female singer with a fan (the only prop) in the right hand and a male drummer who accompanies her and, in effect, sets the rhythm of the story, which is presented in a blend of recitative and a special type of singing with very specific fluctuations of the voice.

I saw my first Pansori in Poland in 2010 and I will never forget it. The female performer, Ahn Sook Sun, is a Living National Treasure of South Korea. She related the story of a swallow saved by a man and so grateful that next year it travels the whole world back in order to thank him. To this day, when I see a swallow, I remember that magnificent performance, and then a long-lasting bridge between the cultures of Asia and Europe stands somewhere invisibly above me, or rather within me, in my soul.

It is for this reason I so much looked forward to seeing the Pansori opera production included in the program of BeSeTo Festival in Shenzhen: Story in Asia by the South Korean Ipkoason Studio. Moreover, it was the second production there done in a traditional genre which is included in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (since 2003). Like the kunqu opera Six Chapters of a Floating Life, this show too was as attempt at rejuvenating the tradition. It did this, though, in a much more overt and daring way.

Poster of Story in Asia, Ipkoason Studio, South Korea. Photo: Courtesy of CTA (China Theatre Association)

To keep the Pansori genre alive by imbuing it with a modern touch has, actually, been the very underlying idea for creating the Ipkoason Studio. “To research new ways for working… while confirming the infinite possibilities of creation in Pansori” is how the company defines the core of their work. Indeed, on the very surface, there are some substantial changes in the way the traditional genre appears in their shows. The cast is considerably enlarged: there are two female singers on stage and three musicians. Also, the company has considerably opened up its repertoire to include, in addition to the traditional stories, modern short stories, like Doris Lessing’s To Room 19, interpretations of Les Miserables, and fairy tales – all of these grouped in separate special series. Then, there are more instruments on stage, both traditional and modern. The music is diversified too. Finally, there are some light effects and, in some of the shows, the costumes are not traditional. At the same time, while broadening, so to speak, the physical territory of Pansori, Ipkoason Studio strives to preserve its very spirit – namely, the asceticism of the means of expression and the stress on the flight of imagination. The latter, I find very much in the tradition of Asian paintings, where there is usually a lot of free space serving as an invitation for the human imagination to fill it in and thus “continue” the story, so that in this way the recipient of the art could become its spiritual co-creator.

Not by chance the emblem of Ipkoason consists of two creatures who have  human bodies and, respectively, a mouth and a hand instead of heads – an illustration of the very meaning of the company’s name “Mouth of a Singer and Hand of a Drummer.”

The imagination’s leading role in Ipkoason’s work was beautifully demonstrated in Shenzhen in their Story in Asia. Commissioned by a Foundation that has collected and published 100 Asian stories, it is a two-part show, telling an Indonesian story and a Burmese one that dwell on the border between fables and folk tales. The show had no subtitles, so I knew the stories only in their outlines, yet I was able to follow quite a lot of the plot because of the rich characterization that the two actresses managed to provide via only their singing and recitative, as well as the fan in their hands, helped by the music, of course.

Most striking to me was that they not only animated the fan to become so many things – from a seed to a baby, a dragon, etc. – but managed to fill even the empty stage and air with life. In addition to the usual vivid relating of the story, containing a concrete description of the characters, their life ordeals and emotions, this was done via a very delicately implied (I would not even use the word demonstrated) attitude towards the characters, their relations and the very development of the action. As in many Asian traditional genres, equally important for the overall effect of the story-telling was, on the one hand, the text and subtext of the story itself, and, on the other hand, the performers’ detachment from it, providing additional context and enhancing their meaning with special, so to speak, italicizing in the texture of the show.

And all that was achieved by very sparse means: voice fluctuations, subtle face mimic and body movement, few non-textual comments – including, of course, musical ones – imbued most of the time with a benevolent sense of humor, i.e. humor having nothing to do with maliciousness or condescension. Finally, one more thing which is not so much a stage means of expression but, I believe, contributes substantially to achieving the final result: an underlying, generally tranquil attitude to the subject-matter of the story related on stage. As a foreigner, I find this special attitude to be very typical to South Korean theatre, while being in stark contrast to the dramatic predisposition and temperament of the Western theatre. To me it is akin to the tranquility that has brought the nickname of South Korea as a land of the morning calm. Tranquility that somehow relates to innate wisdom. So, even when very dramatic stories are being related on stage, this tranquil attitude makes the moral conclusions coming out of them transcend didacticism and sound as something very natural – as something of a given, or as a gentle reminder of the innate feeling encoded in us by birth for the right and the wrong.

Story in Asia, Ipkoason Studio, South Korea. Photo: Courtesy of CTA (China Theatre Association)

Such was the wave I felt attuned to by Story in Asia – by the “wisdom passed down from generation to generation” that the two chosen by them stories were actually all about. This show invoked in me joyfulness and serenity at once – sort of an elevating feeling of spiritual purity – and made me very interested in seeing the rest of the oeuvre of these young South Korean theatre-makers who blend tradition and contemporariness in so bold and so delicate manner all at once.

What makes the effect of the show even more impressive and the mastery of the Ipkoason performers further stand out is the fact that they take sole credit for it. That is, there’s no director involved, which is fully in the tradition of Pansori opera and, for that matter, many other traditional Asian genres.

The same line of purity and beauty, in the figurative and literal sense alike, was continued by the Bulgarian production in the BeSeTo program, Daddy’s Always Right from CREDO Theatre. A two-handed rendering of the well-known Andersen fairy-tale (adapted by Nina Dimitrova and Yury Dachev), it is done in that apparently simple manner which usually goes with genuine ingenuity. Ingenuity on multiple levels, that is: demonstrated in the set and costume design, in the directing and in the acting alike.

As one of the first reviews of the show summarized it so well, “It seems that the Bulgarian “Credo” is capable of telling and shaping everything just by using pieces of muslin by the meter. Two white clowns appear on stage like the wind, “wearing” skis, holding staffs that imitate ski sticks, dressed in white muslin. This is how they create the whole fairy-tale illusion. A stunning performance which exudes warmth and coziness.” (Stiftstidente Arhus, Denmark)

Poster of Daddy’s Always Right, directed by Nina Dimitrova, CREDO Theatre, Bulgaria. Photo: Courtesy CREDO Theatre

Daddy’s Always Right exudes also the innocence and goodness imbued in Andersen’s story. And, importantly, the use of the rich arsenal of clowning and the same type of benevolent humor, as in the South Korean modern Pansori, serves as a very well-measured counterpoint, so that the inner purity of the story doesn’t seem didactic in the end. If I were looking for the best comparison between this show and something from outside theatre, it would be with a drop of crystal water.

The feeling of perfection, in the sense of nothing to add and nothing to take away – which is the result of meticulous work on the smallest detail – is characteristic of all the work of Nina Dimitrova, the mastermind and main engine of Daddy’s Always Right (she is also its director, co-set-and-costume-designer, and performer together with Dimitr Nestorov), as well as of CREDO Theatre itself.

Trailer of Daddy’s Always Right, directed by Nina Dimitrova, CREDO Theatre, Bulgaria

CREDO’s first show The Overcoat, after Gogol, (1992) is a real phenomenon: over 600 performances, in 9 languages, and over 200 festival awards, and still running. Daddy’s Always Right too, despite its over 200 performances, including at over 50 international festivals, still feels fresh as it was in the very beginning, in 2005. It also has versions in other languages – so far four of them. Yet, it is not this multilingualism of CREDO’s shows that is the explanation of their international success. It’s mainly because they speak perfectly the lingua franca of the theatre – the blend of story-telling, a 100% truthful emotion, profound humanity and boundless imagination – a blend which has always been the only infallible means of communication between people on stage and people in the theater hall. I believe it is this blend that made Daddy’s Always Right the most sought out show in the first Festival week in Shenzhen.

Daddy’s Always Right, directed by Nina Dimitrova, CREDO Theatre, Bulgaria, photo. Courtesy CREDO Theatre

Of course, not everything was so perfect in that first week of the BeSeTo program. The other South Korean show presented, Tree Won’t Seek for Shoe Store from Greenpig Theatre, was, to me, the very opposite of stylishness and beauty. It presents a deliberately exaggerated dystopian version of our world. Yet, even the ingenious ideas in it (fetuses signing contracts with their future mothers) are undermined exactly by the fact that the stage means of expression themselves have fallen prey to some ubiquitous features of our time. In the first place, superficiality: everything on stage is illustrative, i.e. not much deeper than the elementary-level signs of emoticons or symbols of a heart made of two palms. Secondly, the overwhelming decibels: the show is in some parts so noisy  – the actors playing fetuses shout and shriek for such a long time that I was wondering how they managed still to be able to talk at the end of that scene. As a counterpart to all that, there are some fine poems that intersperse the texture of the show and for brief moments manage to at once uplift and deepen it. Yet, this really well-intended contrast is too small a part of the whole to be able to make a difference and help achieve a balance.

Tree Won’t Seek for Shoe Store, directed by Yoon Hansol, Greenpig Theatre, South Korea. Photo: Courtesy of CTA (China Theatre Association)

In-between Tree Won’t Seek for Shoe Store and the first three above-mentioned shows was Little Eyolf from Bird Theatre, Japan. It is a very clean rendering of Ibsen’s play, yet there is something illustrative in it too, although on a much less superficial level. From the very beginning and for quite a while the actors keep on conversing and communicating while fully facing the audience; then, when their relationships start unravelling due to the main triggering point of the play, they gradually begin to turn to each other,  finding the way to each other. If this were accompanied with a clearer psychological portrait of the characters, it would probably not feel like a rough draft of  what the show should be about.

Little Eyolf, directed by Nakashima Makoto, Bird Theatre, Japan. Photo: Courtesy of CTA (China Theatre Association)

One thing, though, made this Little Eyolf really worth seeing it. It has a joint cast of Japanese and Korean actors. This very fact makes the show a great symbol of how the BeSeTo Festival’s initial intentions have been genuinely coming to fruition throughout its 27 years of age.


[1] Chen, Tian, A Beloved Chinese Classic Gets a Weightless Adaptation, Sixth Tone, May 18th 2023 

*Kalina Stefanova, PhD, is author/editor of 15 books on theatre, five of which in English  (Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge/Harwood Academic Publishers, and St. Kliment Orchidski University Press) and two fiction titles, published in nine countries. She has lectured worldwide and is a Visiting Distinguished Professor of the Arts School of Wuhan University. She served as Vice President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (2001-2006) and as its Director of Symposiums (2006-2010). Currently she is a Full Professor of Theatre and Criticism at NATFA, Sofia.

Copyright © 2024 Kalina Stefanova
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