He speaks slowly, shutting his eyes as he searches for the right words. Didn’t his “Medea and its Double” at the MetroPlus Theatre Fest show that Korean director Hyoung-Taek Limb wants to probe the pulse throbbing below the surface?

Why “Medea”? Was this choice dictated by the need for acceptance in the West? “I have directed the famous Korean novel “Coarse Sand” in Peru, about a son who kills his mother,” he answers, and chuckles when you wonder if “Medea” looks at the other side of the same theme.

He goes on, “The concept of maternity fascinated me — the symbol of total love. Can a mother kill her children?” The answer lay in the lust for power and wealth that impelled Jason to dump his wife Medea, in order to marry a princess and become king — all under the pretext of promoting the welfare of his wife and children! Medea saves her children by killing them before they can be infected by such iniquities. The funeral of white shroud and cleansing tears is a purification rite guiding them into another world.

Limb begins “Medea” with children’s games — before pollution corrodes innocence, and avarice turns humankind into cheaters and grabbers. Believing that loss of “purity” makes us inhuman, Limb emphasises the unstained phase of Jason’s love for Medea, before the disease develops into the universal conflict between the individual and society, right and wrong. The title suggests the doppelganger latent in not only the protagonist, but in every one of us.

In this Fall from pre-lapsarian grace, Pansori music underscores revenge and pain, while simpler strains signify higher levels of being. They are harmonised when Medea’s split selves unite. The setting outlines an Asian universe for tragedy. Lamps glow, moving waters gleam. A sun (also the full moon) hangs on a blood red sky. Limb adds, “The entrance suggests the open womb from which characters are born.”

Influenced by experiences

He admits to being influenced by personal experience. “I’ve seen my father completely polluted by the prejudices and demands of society. As a policeman, he served a dictatorship for 40 years. He even asked me to betray a friend. His idea of success was for me to become a lawyer or doctor. I asked myself why, why, why? I was confused. I became a Marxist.” Luckily, the military regime also ensured the mandatory training of youth in the traditional arts. “I learnt shamanism, music and mask dance, for which our village was famous!” With a degree in economics, Limb tried painting, running a restaurant, and driving a taxi. Unexpected success in directing a commercial film provided the funds for theatre studies in New York where he also joined Odissi, Chhau, Kathakali, Kabuki, Yoga and Noh workshops. At Columbia University, noted Romanian director Andrei Serban ensured interaction with thespians such as Jerzy Grotowski and Richard Schechner. “Their wisdom made me look into myself — who am I? Who have I been?”

Self-appraisal

Self-appraisal led to Limb’s shedding anxieties about being an authentic Korean citizen and to think more universally — why do human beings love, hate, rape, kill each other? What are the real dilemmas and issues they grapple with? “I know there’s more fame and money in films. But I’m thrilled by live theatre, in creating a moment while rehearsing. Then it feels like a calling, not a profession!”

Limb has worked as a movement instructor in Schauspielhaus, Germany. His creative output testifies to his joy in sheer physical energy. But what part does he allocate to the word on the stage? “The spoken word has the same quality of physical activity. Without right rhythm and tempo, words simply cause misunderstandings. The beauty of the text has no meaning unless spoken with clarity, emotion and musicality. For me, physical theatre includes sound, music and voice.”

Limb is now working on Pierre de Marivaux’s cruel comedy “La Dispute”. We can see how Limb is caught by the moral issues tangled in this voyeuristic experiment by ‘civilised’ aristocrats, viewing the first time encounters of boys and girls, brought up in hermetically sealed isolation.

Today Limb heads the acting programme at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of The Seoul Factory for the Performing Arts. Has all the national and international recognition of his vigorous aesthetics changed the father’s mind about his son? Laughter spills through the words as Limb drawls, “My father hated all these things. Now we’re trying to build a new relationship!”