The Apology is based on real-life testimonies from ‘comfort women’; Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War Two (and yes, the terminology is addressed within the play).
In 1991 Priyanka Silva (Sharan Phull) goes to Seoul to write a report for the United Nations. She is looking for evidence of the historical use of ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese military. She meets Kim Sun-Hee (an excellent performance by Sarah Lam), a survivor, to hear and record her account. Sun-Hee has kept quiet over the decades, living with the shame she feels for the traumatic events forced upon her.
Alongside this, Han Min (Kwong Loke, in an equally strong performance) grapples with his part in events during the war and struggles to explain anything to his daughter (Minhee Yeo) when first-hand accounts start to make the news in South Korea. This very effectively shows the trauma echoing down the generations and how the actions and inactions of close to 50 years ago have lifelong consequences.
We meet Bok Hae (Jessie Baek), who as a young girl was convinced to sign up as a nurse, but found herself instead held captive and locked up far away from home. She relates how she was just one of tens of thousands of women misled into joining what she thought was the Women’s Volunteer Corps. She suffered two years of endless trauma with queues of soldiers (daytime) and officers (evening) waiting outside her room, where she was continuously raped. At points, timelines merge with powerful effect, as the younger Bok Hae and older Kim Sun-Hee both speak directly from the different points in their life, one telling her mother lies to cover the shame she feels, the other speaking the unvarnished truth of the trauma she went through. It’s only later that the truth of what links them becomes apparent.
Ross Armstrong’s US diplomat is slick and greasy and contrasts strikingly with the Korean characters. This comes across poorly and strikes the wrong note. It feels like a flawed direction choice, as he is clearly a talented actor. Of course, it could also be a deliberate decision, to provide contrast and further underline the power and the dignity of the Korean characters. There is a strange chemistry, even flirtation with Silva, which plays oddly with the play’s themes and seems unnecessary to the story.
Top marks to TK Hay’s set design, which uses the full vertical space of the Arcola. The entire set is covered with pages from the United Nations’ report and testimony. There is also effective use of real life footage and projected imagery, which provides hard hitting context to the history being relived here.
The Apology loses its way a little in the latter part of the second half where it relies on a contrivance to bring all the characters together, and this blunts the edge a little. Not that you could tell from the cast, who still put wonderful power and emotion into their performances, relating an important and moving story that needs to be told. The pain and trauma of these events lives on, even today, in the women who experienced it and the people they love.
Written By: Kyo Choi
Directed By: Ria Parry
Set design by: TK Hay
The Apology plays at Arcola Theatre until 8 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.