MAREEL this week welcomed a brand new play written for the National Theatre Connections project – The Free9 by In-Sook Chappell – writes Zoe Spence. Directed by John Haswell and Izzy Swanson, the play opened in Shetland on Tuesday (20 March), with a second performance on Wednesday (21 March) followed by a performance at Eden Court in Inverness on Tuesday 10 April.
The play follows eight teenagers from North Korea who escape and endeavour on a long journey through China and Laos with the help of “Big Brother” to try and seek refuge in South Korea. A harrowing story leaving the audience in stunned silence throughout.
It begins with the teenagers standing solidly in white shirts and red scarves. A North Korean propaganda song plays loudly as they are stripped of their shirts and scarves and left in greyscale rags. The character Sunny (Ishbel McKenzie) is quietly crying throughout which gives a distinct setting for the audience plunging us immediately into the densely difficult atmosphere of the play.
In the first scene it seems the young teenagers are being held captive in an abandoned detention centre in Laos, and are being filmed and broadcast throughout China. The play shifts through time with every scene change, varying between times before the detention centre and their conversations within it.
In the detention centre, there are lingering figures that seem to only move like floating ghosts… These are The Han-ridden (or The Forgotten) and they depict lost family members of the young teenagers.
During a flashback scene, the characters meet someone named “Big Brother” who knows that they are escaping and trying to hide. Big Brother offers them food and says he will help them escape, and is with them forthwith in every flashback scene, but is never seen in the detention centre. There is a strong theme of Christianity that follows Big Brother, and it almost feels like he is developing a cult with the teenagers.
The play’s title s revealed when character Mini (Martha Brown) declares that all the young teenagers will start a band, they will be named The Free9 and will become famous K-Pop artists when they escape to South Korea.
A very young cast managed to perfectly tell this difficult story. Acting was spectacularly directed: there were moments of pause and slow storytelling, where The Han-ridden seem to be reaching strongly to The Free9 and could never quite reach them.
There was an excellent moment when one of the Han-ridden (Shaela Halcrow) was throwing rocks at Blade (Laura Bisset) in captivating slow motion. On stage it can be difficult to act in slow motion as it can be easily become floppy or weak, but Shaela played it so strongly I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
A memorable moment during a scene when the Han-ridden edged ever closer to The Free9, “there are no ghosts in this room” was spoken and the Han-ridden immediately drew back.
A piece of lighting I particularly enjoyed was during a flashback scene when Mini was showing the Free9 her TV, there was a low flicker of light reflecting on all the casts faces as they watched.
Having the characters watch the screen with the audience, as we all saw into Mini’s imagination, was incredibly effective. She showed us her alternative future, where she was in a dressing room with Rat (Storm Smith) choosing outfits and putting on make-up.
While I was already welling up watching this imagined scene, Mini’s line “All there is, is fantasy. And if you believe it enough, it can happen” pushed me to tears as the next imagined scene played. A happy and colourful future for The Free9 was projected for all the audience to see. They danced on a stage and were a famous K-pop band at last, but it was utterly heartbreaking to be thrown back to their reality in the detention centre.
Big Brother finally returned to them, and they were given the news that they are all to be moved to South Korea, and the joy is bounteous! Only to discover that they had all been brought back to North Korea, clad in rags, and their celebratory freeze-frame dissolved to hunched, downtrodden bodies as Big Brother walks offstage.
Myself and the rest of the audience sat in deafening silence as the cast stood up to take their bows. This is a masterful piece of theatre, giving us a taste of real life in other countries, where you can be a prisoner because of the country you were born in. A thoroughly gripping performance by all, and I encourage as many people to see it as possible.