Never before have I seen Ranga Shankara so full, so agog with chatter. People sat on the steps, children (who made up a large share of the audience) took great persuasion from their guardians to settle down, groups that sat separated talked excitedly with each other across the aisles.
With that kind of anticipation and turnout, began The Tale Of Haruk.
The Tale Of Haruk is a Korean play aimed at children. Performed by TUIDA, the play is in Korean. Subtitles in English were displayed on screens on either side of the stage. Not that many subtitles were needed: the play does not have many dialogues. Of what is there, a lot of it is made up of the single word – “haruk”.
Unlike the conventional children’s offering high on colour and sound, The Tale Of Haruk is understated and quiet. No yellow balloons, red spangles or green jokers’ costumes; we have here instead an all-white stage and an all-white attire. Making a success of minimalism in a children’s play requires vision and guts, and TUIDA shows them amply. The stark environment helps to heighten one’s appreciation of sights and sounds. Multi-coloured scarves and jackets stands out against the white, the chomping of rice and the crunching of grass resonate in the silence.
The sparse set and costumes, we soon discover, are not as simple as they seem and take us by surprise several times.
TUIDA brings in percussion, shadow play, puppetry and mime into the act. A sense of the unexpected runs throughout as we do not know what form we’ll see next. There are a couple of show-stopping moments that were greeted with loud gasps, as when The Spirit Of The Tree appears the first time and when the giants walk in.
In a nice bit of symmetry, the human characters and the puppets switch forms as the play progresses. Haruk, a hand puppet to start with, grows to monster size while his parents, played by live actors at first, are reduced to pull-string puppets and shadows at the close. It’s worth admiring how closely the puppets resembled the live people. A lot of care has clearly gone into the details in this play, right down to having the Spirit Of The Tree talk in a “spirit-like” font on the subtitles.
Most children’s stories have a “moral” attached to them. This moral is usually the most distasteful part of the story. I remember reading Aesop’s Fables as a child and wondering why the fables could not have been told without a lesson forced down the throat. The Tale Of Haruk gives credit to children’s intelligence by not handing out neatly pared lessons. If there is something to be learnt, it has to be thought over and drawn out.
The message for parents is, in fact, more direct. Haruk’s parents exemplify unconditional love. Haruk is not an ordinary child. He has special food needs and odd linguistic tendencies – his vocabulary is confined to a single word. He complains about his meals, muses on the gloomy night and philosophizes about his existence, all using that one word: haruk. But unlike Peter Bichsel’s A Table Is A Table in which a man who does something similar is branded mad by everyone, the parents here not just understand Haruk’s tongue but even pick it up for themselves. There is also a lesson, perhaps, in the consequences of giving in to the obstinate demands of a child.
I am not easily amused by mime but I must confess I was today, and I have my neighbours in the hall to thank for that. An actor had to but twitch an eyebrow and the group of extremely enthusiastic six-year olds next to me would burst into peals of giggles. Who can remain straight-faced when surrounded by infectious laughter? I was also charmed by how engaged they were with the zoo visit sequence. When the actors imitated an animal they would jump to identify it. The play had included pauses before the animals’ names were given out – a smart touch.
This is a play for children but it’s a delightful watch for adults as well, gently prodding your sense of wonder and leaving you thinking of “worlds within worlds”.