A woman from Myanmar has brought the ashes of a deceased Korean woman back to her home town. The Korean went missing 70 years previously, as a 12 year old girl; the woman bearing her ashes is met with suspicion and hostility by the bereaved family, who do not trust this stranger. So with the help of an interpreter, she tells the story of how the dead woman ended up so far from her home.
The woman from Myanmar and family from Korea do not share a common language – so she tells the story in English, which is translated into Korean by another character. It’s an interesting device: the delay for the translation gives the audience time to process the information for themselves, before concentrating on the reactions of the family and appreciating the full impact of her words. When a family member speaks, they are similarly translated into English for the understanding both of the visitor and the audience.
The story itself is shocking. The missing girl was one of the many thousands of Korean women who were abducted and forced into becoming 'comfort women' by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. The number of women and girls taken is unknown, but estimated from 20,000 up to a staggering 410,000. They were prostituted in military brothels all across the Asia- Pacific region; many were killed during the war through ill-treatment and friendly fire, and after the war was over, many of the survivors could not face the shame of returning to their homes.
The family audience on stage is large, with eight people of different generations listening to tale. There did indeed appear to be a sense of shame at the confirmed fate of their missing relation; but this shame was not aimed at the victim, but rather at the family's inability to prevent it. There was also a deep sense of anger at how this young girl was treated when she was, after all, only a child. These feelings were matched by the audience, creating an intense atmosphere.
The large number of performers and the fairly large set – with incense, candles and displays – give the stage area a busy, cluttered feeling, distracting a little from the all-important words. There is also a lot of singing and praying, performed exclusively in Korean. It is not difficult to understand what is going on, but it would have been nice to know the specifics of what is being said – even if the mood is easy to interpret.
Overall, Girl is an interesting piece of theatre which provides an insight into how actions in a war long ago can still affect us today. It also highlights a subject area that calls out for our attention, and which is not as well known to a Western audience as it clearly deserves to be.