Halfway through ‘The Tale of Haruk', the theatre floor begins to tremble. The stage is breathing, heaving and swelling. The actors stop, take one look at the backdrop that's beginning to bloat as well, strip their masks off, and run. As the audience quietens, the floorboards broil angrily like the sea, and rise dramatically to the sky.
“Yes, that's Haruk, who has consumed the world,” laughs Yosup Bae, who has directed ‘The Tale of Haruk'. “I suppose we all have our ancestors in us. But Haruk has, quite literally, devoured his parents.” “But not like in a horror movie,” reassures HeeJin, the assistant producer. “Yea, he eats them beau-ti-ful-ly,” laughs Yosup again.
Their award-winning play by Tuidir has been touring the world since 2002, sweeping the Seoul Children's Theatre Awards with four awards including Best Production, and winning a never-before combination of both Best Production and the Young Critics' awards at the International Theatre Kingfestival in Russia.
The performance group began as a few theatre graduates who ended up evolving a style that imbued the traditions of the Clown —from the East, and the West. “The clown's the character that breaks the fourth wall,” says Yosup.
Though Haruk's story was their brainchild, it has found its way through the memory of folktales and oral traditions of Korea. “One of them is the story of the ‘pulgasari' — a little insect someone shapes from a ball of rice. The pulgasari then begins to feed on metal in the world, and grows into a monster. And, he eats the whole world.” And then? “Um. I can't really remember,” says HeeJin, brow furrowed in thought. But the world's been eaten!, we yelp. “I'm pretty sure it dies in the end,” reassures Yosup hastily.
Haruk has brought many stories to them as well. “In Japan, while we performed, the audience sat stock-still, frozen, and all the time we wondered if they were angry. In China, it was like being in a world cup stadium — they were leaping, laughing and falling about.” In Australia, they performed the children's play in front of an audience almost entirely composed of distinguished 70-year-olds.
It was a play that would sometimes wind tightly into itself, and then unspool languidly. The characters donned their costumes while on stage, and dropped silk scarves to the ground, as only clowns can, with a clink.
We're in the deep, dark mountains, where a lonely old woman and man have been blessed with a child by the Spirit of the Tree. But, warns the liquescent Spirit, the child must eat nothing but dew. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, they say, and so begin wonderful years. (Haruk is played by a hand puppet, who somehow emotes almost as well as the brilliant actors.)
The great hunger
And one day, Haruk, who wants for nothing, decides that he must eat rice. After much pleading, and magnificent wailing, his parents give in. But then his hunger grows. And it cannot be appeased. He leaves, devouring everything in his way. His parents wander the world looking for him — until the world is him. He'd swallowed the earth, the sun, the moon and, by the looks of the stage, most certainly Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall. But, he is still ravenous. In a final act of sacrifice, his parents offer themselves up to him.
“Everywhere we went with the play,” says Yosup, “people have been seeing it differently. Many saw a metaphor for our world — the greed, the insatiability of our creed. Others saw sacrifice. But some,” he smiles, “saw love.”