At its beginning, Brush sets itself up as a play for young people which thrives on creating magic from simplicity.
Made by a Korean company, Theatre Haddangse, and starring Korean actors, there exists a language barrier which limits the expressive options of the performers from the spoken word to the visual and audible as they tell their story. At least initially, the show rises to this challenge very well.
The tale of a child venturing into the woods in search of a God who will grant him a baby brother seems to fit the mold of the coming of age story very comfortably. But the simplicity of the play is even more apparent in its more technical aspects.
The set initially consists of a triptych of flats covered in paper on which the actors can paint the setting of each scene.
Using a few simple brush strokes the actors can literally paint a picture of the world they are prevented from describing with words. But the really wondrous moments come when it is revealed that there is more to the set than meets the eye. In moments that almost feel more like magic tricks than theatre, puffs of smoke, soundscapes, silouhettes and puppets are introduced, seemingly from out of thin air. It is this ability to make us expect simplicity and give us spectacle that keeps us on our toes in the plays opening few scenes.
It is excellently scored by a musician who is present onstage throughout the performance.
It is this feeling that we are given at the start of theatre being not just performed, but created in front of our very eyes, that promises to give us the sense of awe we associate with children’s theatre.
At this early point in the play, two things are clear: 1) If this play is going to be memorable, it will be for individual moments of genuine wonder. 2) These theatre makers are capable of showing impressive levels of creativity in executing those moments.
Unfortunately, this play is also an excellent example of the inherent difficulties of relying on these unpredictable flourishes to keep your audience captivated. As the play progresses, we begin to expect to be surprised, and so the performers were forced with the choice of either becoming predictable and boring, or escalating the spectacle and getting further and further away from the simplicity that made the show so watchable to begin with.
One way to get around this problem is to have a strong narrative backbone to structure the play around, but this would prove to be the show’s Achilles’ heel. The tale which lies at the play’s centre has the structure and familiarity of a Western fairytale, but rather than develop or explore the central characters and themes contained in it, the play seems to fall back again on its increasingly extravagant lighting and design tricks, which can only hold the attention of an audience for so long. None of this is to say that you necessarily need a traditional hero’s journey style structure in order for an audience to feel invested. But at the end of the day, the type of story which Theatre Haddangse have decided to tell here is designed to be told in a very traditional way and by surrendering story to style to an increasing degree over the course of the production, something integral to the piece as a whole does seem to have been lost.
If nothing else, an audience member, be they child or adult, who walks out of this production will have seen something genuinely novel to them, and very often that is enough to make a theatre experience worthwhile.
But for all their originality, Haddangse seem to have neglected some of these more basic, tried and tested aspects of storytelling, which are really necessary to keep an audience engaged, especially one aimed at such a young audience.
Brush finished its run at On The Edge on Tuesday July 5th.
Young Critics On The Edge is a collaboration between Barnstorm Theatre Company,NAYD (National Association for Youth Drama) Ireland and Mess Up The Mess, Get the Chance (Wales) in conjunction with the Symposium strand of the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering for 2016.