Culture critic Megan Gates reviews ‘Orange Polar Bear’ at the REP
I went to ‘Orange Polar Bear’ not knowing what to expect – performed in a mix of English and Korean, this was my first experience of multi-lingual theatre and it was by no means a gentle introduction.
In England, William (Rasaq Kukoyi), doesn’t fit in – he came to the country as a young child with his mother, who works multiple jobs desperate for him to have a better life. His best friend got other friends and left him at the beginning of secondary school. He is on the outside and doesn’t seem to mind – he wants to blow away in the breeze like a leaf. The mysterious Sarah appears out of nowhere, and the two begin a charming and yet destructive relationship. Sarah’s big sister died suddenly and, in their grief, her parents are pushing her away, and she is self-harming and suicidal. In Seoul, Jiyoung (Minju Kim) lives with her grandmother and father, and longs for the return of her mother who left the family without warning 13 years ago. Her best friend Taehee drags her around, after getting popular and signing with a Talent Agency. Jiyoung is extremely shy, and this, coupled with Korea’s national obsession with female perfection, leaves her struggling over her body image and social standing. Her father works late and drinks heavily, her grandmother rarely leaves the apartment.
The play follows the teenagers through the intimacies of school and family life, showing how these fifteen-year-olds, thousands of miles apart, are living remarkably similar lives. They both live in flats, they are both missing a parent, they are both misunderstood and deeply unhappy. ‘Orange Polar Bear’ draws on the collective experiences of youth and our inherent desire to connect with one and other. It is a play about belonging and the universality of loneliness.
The cast was faultless. Each performer was captivating and they collectively pulled the audience in on a whistle-stop tour de force. They handled the play’s dark subject matter with humanity and realism, leaving the audience with no choice but to engage with their characters. The staging of the play was similarly remarkable. The set was minimalistic but versatile; an armchair, small dining table and five scattered cubes became buses, class rooms, and virtual battlegrounds. Frequent movement sequences interspersed the dialogue and were incredibly choreographed and beautifully executed. While the integration of lighting, projection and sound were enchanting and captivating, special mention must go to movement director Lee Yun-Jung and projection designers Yeo Shin-Dong and Jung Byung-Mok.
The play bombards the audience with an array of poignant themes: bereavement, absent parents, body image, mental health and even terrorism and environmental catastrophe. While none of the themes are really discussed at length, ‘Orange Polar Bear’ certainly succeeds in leaving the audience breathless.
However, this is a play about disaffected youth where it is often painfully obvious that it was written by adults. The play contains a plethora of teen tropes such as the boy next door falling for the seemingly dangerous, self-hating girl and the shy teen girl being exploited by the popular girl she used to be best friends with. Co-writers Evan Placey and Sun-Duck Ko aimed to champion the voices of a generation they do not belong to, and what they created is perhaps more of a play about what adults think about young people than what young people think about themselves. However, although William and Jiyoung’s experiences and attitudes towards the “pointless world” were not something I could relate to, I still found them, and indeed the entire production entertaining and endearing. ‘Orange Polar Bear’ is a visually thrilling and emotionally engaging piece of theatre.