The Power in Seoul Waiting for the End of the World

Scene from The Power: What will bring about the end of the world?
Scene from The Power: What will bring about the end of the world? | Photo: Im Yeong-Hwan / NTCK

A red dragon, a confused army, a rampage and let’s not forget the end of the world. The Power omits hardly anything. The play that now premiered in Seoul is a parable of South Korean society. By Kerstin Car

If you were to believe the inhabitants of South Korea’s capital city, the streets in downtown Seoul are presently deserted. They say it’s because of the fear of MERS. If you believe your own eyes, though, it’s not so. People are surging on the pavements, the shops fill the streets with loud K(orea)-pop, street food sellers are here and there and, well, everywhere and all is lit and surrounded by blinking and glaring neon signs.

Seoul is vibrant. After the end of the occupation and military dictatorship, through hard work, willpower and zeal, the metropolis quickly transformed itself into a global economic power of rapidly rising prosperity. And it offers huge amounts of everything imaginable bathed in its sea of neon lights. The district of Myeong-dong, one of its top tourist and shopping draws, is inundated with hustle and bustle, people, K-pop and street noise.

Amidst these Korean marvels we also find the Myeong-dong Theatre, where Nis-Momme Stockmann’s socially critical, capitalism-bashing play The Power celebrated its world premiere under the direction of Alexis Bug. The play is produced by the National Theater Company of Korea in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut. It deals with the difficulties of a strictly hierarchical nation undergoing changes in its society and power structures.

The play, which is imbued with a wittily apocalyptic mood, is no less trendy, keyed up and entertaining than the streets in Myeong-dong. Stockmann quotes the British cultural theorist and blogger Mark Fischer who said people can imagine the end of the world before they can imagine the end of capitalism, and keeps all the clocks in his play standing still at five minutes before twelve.

All of the characters are waiting for the end of the world while also working towards bringing it about. Birk Odenkirk, employee of a company, finds a letter without a recipient or a sender, which is also to be opened “only in an extreme emergency.” He is obviously overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the situation. The soldiers of the Green Army, who, due to lost insignia, are initially unsure who their commanding officer is, ultimately perish because the revered dragon is not green, but red. Meanwhile, a dispute in the executive suite of the Globex insurance group degenerates in a rampage. On the subway, the narrator is given a lesson about reality from a homeless person.

Living on the Edge

At the end of the play, one would not be surprised if Birk not only lost his job, but his mind as the production plays with the theatrical means and the recurring flaunting of the theatre situation, which only Birk does not understand is theatre, but thinks is reality. While the others play with their roles and wait quite naturally for the end of the world, they unhinge Birk’s reality.

The Power is a parable that can be applied not just to South Korean society, but to all societies in which humanity has deconstructed itself to such a degree that it can only be defined by means of self-constructed hyper-realities. This makes them no longer the unknowing abetters and victims of the “system,” but minions and makers living on the edge.

Although some of the seats in the theatre remained empty for the first performance due to MERS alerts, the audience seemed enthusiastic to attend the end of the world. They clapped to the music, hummed along with the author character’s primeval droning and applauded his final end-of-the-world thank-you speech. “Remember, none of us should feel bad. We managed quite a lot here. Thank you.”

And then the libretto comes true: While a choir sings the music for the end of the world, the stage is engulfed in confetti and theatrical fireworks. Only the announced explosion fails to materialize. But not to worry: it’s still five minutes before twelve.