“Perhaps a flock of cranes will appear soon, winging their way from Pyongyang”
One can imagine co-stars Kwong Loke and Andrew Leung at a Christmas party or somesuch, making conversation with someone else who asks them who they are playing in the Royal Court show they’re both in. Loke would say ‘Doctor/Well/Rice Musician/Farm Hand/Disembodied Voice/Delivery Person/Neighbour/Teacher’ and Leung would say well I’m only a ‘Smuggler/Frog/Man In Bear Suit/Soldier/Clerk/Youngsup’ and the other person would nod politely and then say ‘but have you seen Hangmen‘.
This gives you something of a sense of the mystical scope of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You and the journeys that her protagonists, two North Korean sisters, take in her delicious confection of a play. Minhee and Junhee want nothing more than for the other to be strong and healthy but under the unblinking eye of Great Leader Kim Jong-Il, food and medicine and hope are scarce and so they decide to flee. But as they make the arduous journey to the border and are asked to make a huge sacrifice, the sisters are torn apart.
Jon Bausor’s sci-fi-leaning set design comes into its own here, its mirrored portal and suggesting that the border trying to be crossed is more than just one between two countries but between entire cultural mindsets, orthodoxies, even realities. Wendy Kweh’s deeply empathetic Minhee remains trapped in her homeland – courtesy of a properly brilliant design coup, Tal Rosner’s video working brilliantly here – ensnared in a surreally corrupt system that even Kafka would dismiss as far-fetched, Kweh painfully expressing not just a literal hunger but a spiritual one.
Katie Leung’s Junhee meanwhile finds herself in New York where she sets about earning enough money to return and get her sister over the border too. These scenes are hilariously mounted due to some amazing work by Daisy Haggard as a range of characters Junhee meets as she tries to assimilate, the gobbledygook they’re speaking slowly becoming more recognisable as English presumably at the rate Junhee is learning the language.
And even as a relationship with Paapa Essiedu’s Alabama-born Wade develops into something utterly charming (the scene where they discuss their future dreams is gorgeously directed by Richard Twyman and movement director Eddie Kay), Chung reminds us the American Dream is just that, a dream, on the other end of the idealism spectrum from the “Best Nation in the World” but not totally divorced from it as much as they may beg to differ.
With its strong cast – Haggard is jaw-droppingly good, Leung and Loke’s multi-roling is exceptionally well done and the sisterly bond between Kweh and Leung in all its polite squabbling and grounded gravitas is very moving – and creative team firing on all guns, You For Me For You is bold and witty but bittersweet with it. The fable-like framing is occasionally disarming but never fatally so and merely heightens that crucial final question of ‘what price escape?’. A fitting end to a blisteringly good year upstairs at the Royal Court.