What Remains of Us - theatre at Bristol Old Vic
When an armistice was declared to halt the Korean War in 1953, hundreds of thousands of families were left divided on either side of the Korean Demilitarised Zone: since 2000, nineteen reunions have been organised by the state with a select few invited across the border to temporarily reunite with family they have not seen in over fifty years. After these reunions they will never meet again.
Based on these extraordinary events where families meet for a limited number of hours over the course of a handful of meetings, What Remains of Us imagines one such reunion, between a woman living in Seoul and the father she hasn’t seen since she was three, who lives in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. Writer David Lane and director Sita Calvert-Ennals have gathered together hours of interviews and transcriptions, including those from participants and the Red Cross in South Korea, to create a powerful, personal and political play that asks: what do you say after 50 years apart?
David and Sita say, “It’s about their very different personal journeys of remembrance and survival in the wake of that separation, and what they will have to confront once those are shared. In a broader sense, it’s absolutely about our world now – about how we can seek to find our common humanity in spite of our polarised perspectives and experiences, and the hopefulness of what can be saved and created once we’ve found it.
They heard about the reunions in 2014: “The ages of the attendees, the press furore, the raw emotion, the joy and passion and celebration, the age and vulnerability of the characters and the bittersweet temporary nature of the reunions were an incredibly potent mix. We knew then that we wanted to understand more about the separations, Korean history, and that we’d have to go to Korea to get as close as possible to the story.
David and Sita went to South Korea in 2015. “We undertook around a dozen interviews including meetings with North Korean defectors, the ex-Minister for Reunification, the Red Cross in Seoul, charities that supported defectors upon entry to the South, Peace missions seeking future reunification of Korea, Red Cross administrators who had attended many reunions, and theatre artists at Doosan. We were also incredibly lucky in that the week we were there, one of the reunion meetings was taking place just north of the border. We visited an apartment in Seoul to speak with a man who had returned days earlier from meeting his sister for the first time in sixty years.
“At the Red Cross we watched videos of messages that had been sent out to the North Korean Red Cross from prospective attendees and also watched people coming in who were asking to apply. It was a deeply moving experience being in the middle of it all unfolding in real-time. These real people, with limited time, in their 80s and 90s, coming in and searching for ways to connect with family members when they didn’t even know if they were alive or dead. It was quite a profound research experience.”
What Remains of Us is produced by Judy Owen Ltd in association with Bristol Old Vic, Bath Spa Productions, and Korea National University of Arts (KNUA). A parallel project ran between acting students at KNUA and Bath Spa University, with students making made short films in response to the play. The show is at Bristol Old Vic 3 – 12 March https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/what-remains-of-us