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[Herald Review] Arts on stage: two plays on how music and art shape our lives

Jan. 18, 2023 - 21:22 By Hwang Dong-hee

Actors on stage do more than just read lines -- they sing songs, appreciate paintings and rekindle inspiration.

Two gripping plays currently running in Seoul -- John Marans’ “Old Wicked Songs” and Lee Halls' “The Pitmen Painters” -- bring music and art to the stage, exploring the depth of arts and how they shape our lives.

A scene from "Old Wicked Songs" (Ninestory, Park Company)

Music school drama in "Old Wicked Songs”

Set in the spring of 1986 at a music school in Vienna, the play “Old Wicked Songs” centers on the relationship between music professor Josef Mashkan and his new student Stephen Hoffman.

Hoffman, who was once considered a prodigy pianist is in a slump. He comes from America to meet Professor Schiller, but it is the eccentric Professor Mashkan who awaits him. Hoffman finds out that he must study singing for three months before meeting Schiller.

Their relationship gets off to an uneasy start as two totally different personalities come together. Mashkan seems carefree and overly friendly while Hoffman is sensitive, arrogant, and obsessional about music.

The two-character play depicts the process of two people meeting as teacher and student, and then becoming colleagues and friends through music.

A scene from "Old Wicked Songs" (Ninestory, Park Company)

Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love)” runs through the delicate and emotional narrative, exploring both “sadness and joy in music” just like Mashkan said in one of his lessons.

Classical melodies by Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Beethoven, Bach and Johann Strauss play in the background during their special lessons as their relationship evolves.

American play writer John Marans’ “Old Wicked Songs” premiered in the United States in 1995 and was nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama the following year.

The play was introduced in Korea in 2015 by two local production companies, Ninestory and Park Company.

Triple-cast actors Nam Kyung-eup, An Seok-hwan and Seo Hyun-chul play Mashkan, while Jeong Whee, Hong Seung-an and TV actor Kwak Dong-yeon play Hoffman.

“Old Wicked Songs” runs until Feb. 19 at Yes24 Stage in Jongno-gu, Seoul.

A scene from "The Pitmen Painters' (Pro's LAB)

Miners become artists in “The Pitmen Painters”

“The Pitmen Painters” by British playwright Lee Hall, perhaps best known for his musical “Billy Elliot,” tells a story of how art enriches our lives.

Based on a true story, the play is set in the 1930s, in the mining town of Ashington where 1.2 million miners lived in 1934.

Miners who are members of the Workers' Educational Association decide to take up an art appreciation class after taking several other evening classes. Instructor Robert Lyon first tries to explain art history by showing Renaissance masterpieces such as those by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but miners who have worked their whole life in a narrow, dark tunnel do not work well with Lyon.

Soon realizing that his class is meaningless, Lyon suggests that miners paint. Workers who were ashamed to even hold a brush start to feel more comfortable and passionate about expressing themselves through paintings.

Throughout the play, the paintings being mentioned are shown simultaneously on a screen, including the actual works by the painters, giving the audience a feeling of being in an art museum.

A scene from "The Pitmen Painters' (Pro's LAB)
A scene from "The Pitmen Painters' (Pro's LAB)

Veteran TV and film actors have taken to the stage for “The Pitmen Painters.” Double-cast actors Kang Sin-il and Park Won-sang play miner-painter Oliver Kilbourn who finds his true passion in art. Jung Seok-yong and Song Jae-ryong play finicky Georges Brown, the organizing force in the union. Moon So-ri and Song Sun-mi play Helen Sutherland, an art collector who appreciates the paintings of the Ashington Group and offers Oliver a sponsorship.

“The Pitmen Painters” premiered in 2007 at the Newcastle Live Theater in England. In Korea, local production company Pros' LAB premiered the play in 2010.

The play runs until Sunday at Doosan Art Center in Jongno-gu, Seoul.