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[Herald Review] ‘Goodbye, Yi Sang’: A theatrical exploration of literary icon's ambiguity, identity

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Dec. 13, 2023 - 23:52

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A scene from A scene from "Goodbye, Yi Sang" (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

"An apple has fallen. The Earth felt excruciating pain as it was breaking apart. The final."

Thirteen actors chant the poem “The Final” by writer-poet Yi Sang over and over at Yi’s funeral.

Meanwhile, Yi's eyes pop open at the altar. He senses someone touching his face to create his death mask. He is bewildered by everything around him, as the actors chant: "Why am I lying here? Why are these people crying by my side? What does my face look like?"

Yi Sang, born Kim Hae-gyeong (1910-1937), is one of the most important and revolutionary figures in modern Korean literature. His notable works include the 15-part poetry anthology “Crow’s Eye View” and the short story “The Wings.”

Yi experimented with language, interiority and separation within oneself as well as within the outer world. His poems were influenced by Western modernist literary concepts including Dadaism and surrealism -- evident in his use of geometric signs, numbers and scientific terms -- along with a deliberate absence of word spacing.

A scene from A scene from "Goodbye, Yi Sang" (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

The enigmatic tale of the poet was brought to life in a recent performance by the Seoul Performing Arts Company at Seoul Arts Center's Jayu Theater.

Titled "Goodbye, Yi Sang," the production, based on Kim Yeon-su's eponymous novel, delves into the mysteries surrounding Yi's life and death through a tapestry of dramatic performance, dance and music.

Premiered in 2017, the sold-out show garnered acclaim for its innovative narrative and direction.

The narrative centers around Yi's death mask, a rumored creation of painter Kil Chin-sop. The prevailing theory is that Kil took it with him when he fled to North Korea in 1948.

The 90-minute drama centers on Yi, who yearns to learn more about his true self. Three actors portray Yi’s different personas, embodying his sensory confusion, intellectual contemplation and physical exploration. The three split selves grapple to come to terms with each other.

Yi then encounters two fictional characters -- Seo Hyuk-min, who has followed in Yi’s footsteps, and Peter Joo, a researcher who has spent his entire life studying the poet. Yi also encounters real-life figures such as writer Park Tae-won; poet Kim Ki-rim, his lover Geum-hong; his wife Byeon Dong-rim; and his younger sister Ok-hee -- all of whom contribute to the mosaic of memories surrounding Yi.

They urge Yi to choose a singular identity. The more he listens to them, the deeper his confusion grows.

A scene from A scene from "Goodbye, Yi Sang" (Seoul Performing Arts Company)

Audience engagement begins 20 minutes before the performance, featuring pre-show performances by the cast in the lobby.

For a more immersive experience, each attendee receives a white mask that covers the top half of the face, which they are recommended to wear during the show; a condolence letter for Yi, which they are allowed to rip during the ritual; and a condolence card. Audience members participate in Yi’s funeral, and are free to sit in seats that completely surround the low-rise stage.

All 16 actors remain onstage throughout the show, constantly moving around and dancing.

The production doesn't offer a definitive answer to the question of who Yi truly was. Instead, the narrative, blending fact and imagination, invites the audience to pursue the elusive essence of the artist's identity. Yi's poems are quoted throughout, mirroring the performance's central themes of ambiguity and a fractured self.

A 10-member ensemble provides live music to accompany this evocative journey.

"Goodbye, Yi Sang" runs until Sunday.