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Theatre Review: Orange Polar Bear @ Birmingham Rep

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Orange Polar Bear is a play by Sun-Duck Ko and Evan Placey, who worked with groups of teenagers from Seoul and Birmingham to create this collaborative work. It was produced in a joint effort by the Birmingham Rep, the National Theater Company of Korea, Hanyong Theatre and Birmingham City University.

Told through both English and Korean, with (almost) all of the dialogue being projected onto the backdrop via subtitles, the play is a striking partnership between nations.

Images courtesy of the Birmingham Rep

The play tells the story of two teenagers - William and Jiyoung, who go unnamed for most of the running time - high schoolers living on opposite sides of the world, with an unexplained ability to see into each others lives. At the climax of the piece, in which Jiyoung is grappling with the hole her mother has left in her life and William tries to offer support to a suicidal classmate, the two meet properly for the first time, transcending time and space to discuss their options. 

As you can tell from the brief summary above, the play confronts a lot of heavy themes, and all within a short 1.5 hour run-time. Though it brings up more than it can handle, with certain plotlines seeming unfinished by the end of the play, the emotional payoff was enough to justify inclusion. In particular, the suicidal urges of William's classmate Sarah were delicately portrayed by Tahirah Sherif, and though they were hand-waved away via a letter to her parents, the plotline itself felt crucial to William's emotional arc and Sherif's performance was something to behold.

The play's art direction, courtesy of Yeo Shin-Dong, was spectacular, with a white wall containing a multitude of doors operating as their backdrop. One acted as a microwave (with a rotating plate of food being projected onto it), another as a closet, and a few as just doors, though their context and location could be altered via projection onto the white screen. When Jiyoung and her father travelled via lift to their highrise apartment, the floors zoomed past them as they stood stationary in the doorway, making awkward smalltalk.

The backdrop also had depth, meaning that it could be climbed onto for the scenes in which William and Sarah chatted on the roof of their school. Though they were mere feet above the stage, Sarah's feet dangling over the edge still felt unnerving, and dropped items seemed to land with an unnatural thud. Other levels of height were created via perspex boxes that littered the stage, which were used for almost any purpose. In school scenes they acted as chairs, and when Jiyoung and William met in the inbetween state they climbed upon them as if the floor were made of lava.

Images courtesy of the Birmingham Rep

The ensemble moves through the scenes with masterful craft, taking on new roles as needed in each of the teenagers' lives. Cheongim Kang expertly switches between acting as Jiyoung's grandmother, brought in by her father to raise the girl in her mother's absence, and Taehee, her former best friend who has grown distant with time; Tahirah Sherif plays both William's mother and his suicidal classmate, Sarah. The actors seamlessly fits into these roles, switching out headscarves for denim jackets, and just as easily embodying characters from completely different points of life.

And the young actors at the heart of the piece are just as striking, with Minju Kim portraying every emotion - from gleeful voyeurism to suppressed sorrow - with equal force and authenticity. Rasaq Kukoyi is similarly evocative, portraying the teenage urge to rebel against parental expectation and deep empathy mere moments apart. I left the theatre needing to see more of them, and will be keeping an eye out on upcoming productions in the hopes of their presence.

Orange Polar Bear is a well-crafted work of art, that uses masterful acting and art direction to convey a highly atmospheric tone. Though some of its themes could've done with a little fleshing out, the overall effect was intensely moving, and shouldn't be overlooked.

The play ran from 1-10th November in the Birmingham Rep, and more details about the production can be found here.

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