It would be easier for North and South Korea to reunite under one flag than for two human beings to carry on an honest and sincere love relationship with one another. This may be the gist of Joĕl Pommerat’s play La reunification des deux corées (2013), which was adapted for the Italian stage by director Alfonso Postiglione and produced by Ente Teatro Cronaca Vesuvioteatro. During the two-hour show, 18 scenes with over 50 characters flow from one to the next to depict many possible declinations of the most basic, obvious, and universal human feeling: love. In a kaleidoscope of emotions, sometimes enhanced and heightened, sometimes downplayed and softened, each situation – unrelated to what comes before or after – opens up a temporary window on people struggling to manage their relationship with a partner, a son, or a friend. The overall tone of Pommerat’s play does not leave much space for hope. It may well be true that storytelling is at its best when it represents a problem, an obstacle, or a limit, but in La reunification des deux corées there is hardly ever a proposed solution, a way out, or an alternative escape. The playwright opens up those windows, fills them in with desperate and lonely human beings, and then closes them with deep curtains behind which spectators are no longer allowed to intervene.

La reunification des deux corées. Photo courtesy of Corrieredellospettacolo.net

If the play’s overtones tend towards an ontological pessimism, Alfonso Postiglione’s direction is a wonderful mechanism of smooth entrances and exits, often played with an almost cinematic feel of overlapping sliding frames that focus the audience’s attention on a situation downstage while upstage all of the humanity is on the move. The nuances of love are effectively represented by one rotating prop – a mirror, or actually a real kaleidoscope of refracting colors and shapes that hang in the back of the stage – while nine actors with minimal costume changes play all the characters. The show alternates various tones and rhythms, with a recurring underlying sound score of rain and thunderstorms. Each spectator can find for sure the story that will make him/her say “oh my, that is exactly what happened to me, that is exactly how I feel.”

Two women aggressively attack one another. Maybe they are lovers breaking up, maybe close friends accusing each other of betraying their friendship. What stands out is the desperate cry of one of them: “You cannot leave until you return to me the pieces of me that I have given to you, the bits of me that are inside of you.” When love ends, the most tragic and unbearable sense of loss derives from that sense of betrayal for the good of you that the other person has used and for which he/she is unable to be grateful.

In a hospital, a woman, who has been assisting a sick relative, must say goodbye to the doctor, whom she has feelings for. Her soon to be husband walks in also to thank the doctor. This creates a triangle, played out with an act of physical theatre during which the woman’s words proclaim her happiness for her wedding with the man, while her body cannot hide her physical sexual desire for the doctor. The woman climbs onto the doctor’s back, clings to his limbs and legs, while the fiancé remains completely unaware of her real intentions. “I am happy,” she keeps repeating with a voice that slowly breaks into tears. “I am happy, I am happy, I am happy.” How often, when asked how we are doing, do we automatically reply that we are doing fine, while inside we feel as if we were dying of a broken heart?

A professor must defend himself from the harsh accusations of the school’s principal and the parents of one student. The night before, during a retreat, the kid had suffered from bullying. The professor welcomed him into his room to protect and console him. However, in this society consolation and piety are outdated feelings. What the parents see in the professor’s conduct is not an innocent, or even courageous, defense of their son, but rather an attempt to sexually abuse him. How can the professor react to the accusation and prove it wrong? “The problem is not what I did,” says the agitated man in the emotional climax of the whole show, “but in the fact that you, as parents, have failed because you never told your son that you love him.”

Other parents have failed as well. A couple returns home from a night out. The babysitter gets ready to leave, but the couple’s kids are nowhere to be found. The suspicion of some horrible act immediately falls upon the young girl, who gets verbally and physically abused. Little by little the startled look in the babysitter’s eyes forces the man and the woman to admit that they do not have kids. They pretend to be a father and a mother, because only kids could save their meaningless marriage, could provide a reason to stay together under the same roof and could force them into a fake and distorted form of communication.

Finally, a doctor tries to convince a mentally ill pregnant patient that it would be advisable to undergo an abortion. The girl doesn’t understand the man’s point of view. If she is in love with her boyfriend, and now she is expecting a baby, it is only obvious that they will have the baby and live happily ever after . . . because they are in love. The blatant innocence of the young girl, who listens on her tape recorder to the theme song of the famous 1980s romantic French movie La Boum (The Party), drives the doctor out of his mind, until he breaks up in a hysterical crisis, yelling, “Love doesn’t exist. It’s a made up fairytale for fools. Love doesn’t exist.” The scene subverts the natural order of things, with the disabled girl consoling the grown man about love and all its disasters. After all, it may be true that you must be crazy to have faith in real love, that kind of tale that ends with a happily ever after.

La reunification des deux corées. Photo courtesy of Corrieredellospettacolo.net

The show’s highlights represent the perfect mechanism between text, meaning, and staging that makes Alfonso Postiglione’s directing a truly enjoyable emotional ride. The visual elements of the performance are all basic, and therefore effective: plain colors in all the costume changes, a bare stage (except for the rotating kaleidoscope), a few props wisely dispersed here and there (a ball, a ladder, a chair), essential lighting effects (often arriving from the sides, creating clear-cut paths of light on the stage), and most of all a solid acting rhythm. Contemporary French playwrights don’t often appear in the seasons of Italian theatre, but Pommerat’s writing gets to the core of our ontological condition of lonely human beings constantly in search of that mythological other half that, as Plato wrote in the Symposium, will eventually reunite us with our natural partner.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.