In December 2014, director Sita Calvert-Ennals and I watched a newsreel of an 80-year-old South Korean man trying to select the most appropriate gifts to offer to his North Korean brother. He hadn’t seen him for 64 years. Up until a month before, he didn’t even know if he was dead or alive.
We’d stumbled across coverage of the sixteenth state-organised Korean Divided Family Reunions, where relatives separated during the Korean War of 1950-53 can apply to the Red Cross in their respective countries, to meet their relatives across the DMZ.
The reunions are temporary, time-limited, and strictly observed by both the global media and North and South Korean intelligence agencies. After three days and just six meetings of around two hours in length, relatives must part forever, all over again, with no hope of phone calls, letters or emails to be exchanged.
This man’s simple gesture – searching for the most thoughtful way to connect across a gulf of time and experience – really struck us. What’s inspired What Remains of Us throughout its development has been the genuine hopefulness of that man: using an act of love to cut through the complex politics in which his own life and that of his brother’s had unfolded.
We wanted to make a show that could somehow express the feeling of being separated from your loved ones for half a century, the extreme emotional journey of a temporary reunion, and how two people in completely different political regimes might bear the weight of fifty years of separation, surviving with only hope to cling onto.
It felt like a story that could speak to our times – a story of how love might heal the gaps of time, history, political division, physical borders, family separation, and increasingly polarised opinions. Now in 2022 after Brexit, the Trump era, and the global pandemic, the story feels more relevant and urgent than ever.
After masses of reading and gathering of reunion footage from online sources, and scouring the only two books in the English language about the family reunions, we knew that we wanted to visit Seoul where the inaugural reunion of 2000 took place, and when our play is set. We needed to get as close as possible to the story, finding creative partners in Korea to discover how we could communicate the context to a UK audience.
We met with producer Judy Owen, recommended for her links with UK/Korea theatre collaborations, and together with Theatre Bristol we brokered a research partnership in Seoul with Doosan Art Center, British Council Korea, and HeeJin Lee of Producer Group DOT, our translator, who jointly hosted us for a week in October 2015 when we received an Arts Council International Development Fund.
It was an incredible trip. We undertook around a dozen interviews including meetings with North Korean defectors, the ex-Minister for Reunification, the Red Cross in Seoul, Peace missions seeking future reunification of Korea, Red Cross administrators who had attended many reunions, theatre artists at Doosan and National Theatre of Korea. One of our strongest memories was watching a man in his 80s or 90s quietly waiting with dignity in the Red Cross Centre to hear if his family member was alive or dead in the first instance, so he could then find out whether he could ask for a reunion.
We were also incredibly lucky. Having booked the trip months in advance, during the week we were there the seventeenth reunion meetings were taking place just north of the DMZ. We visited an apartment in Seoul to speak with a man who’d returned from them just days earlier, meeting his sister for the first time in sixty years.
The trip was a profound research experience. The people we met displayed hope, joy, determination, and dignity in the face of unbelievable ideological and political division. It was a privilege to hear people not only open their hearts to us but also reassure us that as outsiders, we could perhaps illuminate this story and situation in a way that they as Koreans could not, with their closeness to the experience.
But when asked what to show of this situation, both North and South Koreans said the same thing. Show the humanity, not just the politics. Show the people, and their hopefulness.
We knew that words alone could never capture the extreme emotions of the attendees’ emotional journeys. We came back to this idea of expressing the feeling of what it would mean to come face-to-face with a loved one after half a century apart. Sound, music, and a structure that weaves moments of dream-like remembrance and choreographed abstract movement are all given as much space to speak in our production as the words themselves.
In 2016, with further ACE funding, we held a two-week R+D allowing us to mulch our research down and explore how we could best tell this story through this combination of theatrical languages. Sita and I worked collaboratively in the deep construction of the story – the world, the characters, the structure, the plot – and I scripted from that.
We brought in South East Asian performers and artists to work with, including Korean composer Jae–Moon Lee who has worked on the final production in collaboration with our sound designer Duncan Speakman. We had two further short R+D periods across 2017-18 before a successful ACE grant to take us into production via an international dramaturgical collaboration with Korea National University of Arts (KNUA) and further funding from the British Korean Society.
Sita visited KNUA in autumn 2019 to work in collaboration with their students and her own at Bath Spa University – another of our producing partners along with Bristol Old Vic. The two student groups exchanged personal responses to the play via Skype, then made a series of short films reflecting the play’s themes. These will be shown in the foyer during the run and, just as importantly, their responses fed back into another draft of the script, deepening the blend of cultural and political influences from the UK and Korea.
In February 2020, Professors of Theatre Ha Young Hwang and Minjae Kang came to work with our creative team for a week at Bath Spa University to explore the script, history, culture and characters from a Korean perspective. They’ve remained with us through pandemic rewrites and via Zoom in our rehearsal process this February. Their ongoing dramaturgical and cultural input has been crucial in us working out how to communicate the story to a UK audience, but also retain a sense of cultural authenticity in the telling.
What’s clear sitting in rehearsal this week, however – as the production spills over with the mess and knottiness of a combined hundred years of personal and political history, jostling to fit into twelve hours of reunion meetings (and less than ninety minutes of stage time!) – is that it’s also just the story of a father and daughter trying to find one another again. We journey through the extraordinary emotional terrain of their story with them at the heart, trying to make sense of the chaos, and yearning along with them that at the end, finally, hope is always what remains.