Easily the most interesting and exciting thing about Seoul is the fact that the street numbering bears no relation to the geographical position of a house but is based on the age of the house. In other words No 1, the first building to be erected, could be standing next to No 357 which was the last. No 2 could be 400 yards away. Koreans spend much of their lives standing next to a fax machine waiting for someone to fax them a map of where to go next. Also tattooing is illegal, there are no blondes in Seoul and yes they do eat dogs, which are a winter speciality deemed to be particularly warming.
I am here to see ‘We Will Rock You’ (or ‘We Will Lock You’ as it is known in these parts) into the Seongnam Arts Centre. Seongnam is a 40 minute drive from our hotel and is to Seoul what Woking is to London.
Seoul was pretty much flattened during the Korean War so it is an unattractive modern city, the shopping streets are smothered with epilepsy inducing signage and the suburbs consist of mile upon mile of randomly numbered tower blocks. But I like it, the Koreans have energy and the streets are full of cheery confident young people. Unlike some of our party I like the food, I even like kimchi, Korea’s national dish. Kimchi is fermented cabbage pickled with garlic and chilli, it’s smell pervades the entire nation. Like it or loathe it no one can deny the effect that recent advances in Kimchi technology have had on the exploding Korean economy. The development of MDK (Medium-Density Kimchi) has revolutionised the manufacture of computer keyboards and sports shoes. All motorway bridges in Korea are now constructed entirely from HDK (High-Density Kimchi).
The theatre at Seongnam is utterly charmless, steel and marble foyers, backstage corridors in green and magnolia without a molecule of decoration. The stage is vast and the crew are generally helpful with only an occasional attack of bureaucracy so the load-in was no real problem.
One of the treats on these trips comes about when we lose or need to replace the material backing the Killer Queen’s appearances in the video booth. Bright red and vulgar is what we usually go for, after all the company motto is “Never knowingly in good taste”. So on this occasion, with the help of the hotel concierge I carefully memorised the Korean for “Excuse me. I wonder if you could help me? I’m looking for something in pink leopardskin” and set off, via Seoul’s excellent metro system, for Namdaemun Market. This is a termite’s nest of retail heaven. A maze of tiny alleys, stalls and cafes. that seems firmly set 50 years earlier than the surrounding streets with their Body Shops and Starbucks. Particularly charming are the lady food vendors who deliver lunches to stallholders balancing trays on their head while they weave through the heaving aisles. The only problem with this market is that it is full of utter tat, there is nothing any sane person would want to buy, unless you are after “something in leopardskin”. So in no time at all I found a leopardskin bathmat that was just the job.
We have had our first night and all went well apart from the moment when the Killer Queen from the video screen demands “Who dares play live rock music ….?” The answer was nil since a computer glitch in the flying system aborted the fly Q and the band were not revealed leaving three actors on stage and one in the video booth(in front of the leopardskin bathmat) working hard to earn their weekly crust. Good stuff, it’s always a pleasure to watch actors squirm their way out of a crisis.
We play the show in English, 95% of the audience here don’t speak a word so we have the dialogue running as Korean subtitles on screens either side of the stage. Would they get the jokes? Well yes and no. I’m sure that when Khashoggi describes Galileo as an “ignorant plucker” the audience were probably puzzled as to why he was thought to be “a stupid worker who removes the feathers from chickens and other domestic fowl”. The oral sex gag in Act 2 after Galileo tells Scaramouche to keep up, was received with a few titters, a few intakes of breath and a few tuts. Then when Scaramouche says “…and you kept your socks on” there was deadly silence. I don’t think that this was shock, I think Koreans often leave their socks on when having sex and is therefore commonplace enough not to be funny. In fact it is possible that Koreans always put socks on before having sex, this is a very tidy and hygienic nation and the fear of sexually transmitted verucas must be all too real.
Apart from jokes lost in translation the first night audience were happy to clap along with anything and were on their feet screaming at the end. Mission accomplished.
The company, which with contingents from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, is the theatrical equivalent of a multinational peace-keeping force, is off to pacify Singapore next.