Uncomfortable Truths: The Apology at Arcola Theatre London

The Apology. Image Arcola/New Earth Theatre
The Apology. Image Arcola/New Earth Theatre

The Apology

From: 15 Sep 2022

To: 8 Oct 2022

Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street
E8 3DL

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Compared with other crimes committed during World War II, little is said of those suffered by East Asian women. Forced into sexual slavery, a form of indentured labour, many women ‘serviced’ ‘train station’ queues of up to 100 men each day, given an arsenic-based medicine called 606 to prevent pregnancy. This so-called ‘Female Volunteer Corps’ compromised many women, who were abducted, drafted via emergency wartime labour laws – and many never returned.

‘Comfort women’ is, of course, a misnomer. Such women – more often, children – were military sexual slaves. The co-production The Apology, from Arcola and New Earth Theatre, gives voice to these women and their testimonies, so heavily scrutinised or silenced in East Asian societies’ ‘shame cultures’. Ria Parry directs a cast of characters who refuse to give their names, recordings, or submit any evidence to independent, legal – non-UN – bodies.

The pacing is perfect. Two stories unfold in parallel – in 1991, Kim Sun-Hee, based on the real-life Kim Hak-Sun, becomes the first woman in Korea to come forward publicly and testify her experience as a comfort woman for the Japanese military. The second, is the story of an unloved daughter, Minhee Yeo, trying to reconcile herself with her father, with her dead mother’s, behaviour. Tension builds over her ambiguous parenthood, leaving the audience to question – is her father truly her father?

Here, we see how historic events, and the dead, still shape the lives of the living. Younger and older women interact, Jessie Baek (Bok Hae) in dialogue with Kim Sun-Hee (Sarah Lam) as she demands justice. This highlights the agency of Korean women, in criticising international organisations’ tendency towards recognition, without action.

Some representations are stilted, but the cast quickly warm into their roles (Japanese soldiers are given a villainous voiceover only, ‘Do you know what happened to the last girl who said no? That was fun’.) Priyanka Silva, as the independent legal investigator, is loaded with explainer dialogue to contextualise the production for the audience.

All the Korean women receive is a report in 1996 – one that lays out the demand to label this a crime against humanity, and for the Japanese government to formally accept responsibility and apologise. We also see governments’ failure to make any form of public apology. This lack of historical reckoning is contrasted with post-war Germany – ‘at least they felt guilt’. Another jarring comparison is made by the caricatured US diplomat, who makes a false equivocation, ‘Will the Serbs apologise for ethnic cleansing?’.

These stories were covered up by both Japanese and US for geopolitical reasons. The MacArthur-quoting American diplomat expresses the country’s interests in the Asian economy, and how the US ensured a light treatment in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, in exchange for quiet acceptance of the nuclear bombing and subsequent occupation. ‘Good diplomats keep quiet,’ the diplomat remarks.

Other plot points are less believable – that Han Yuna (Minhee Yeo) wouldn’t recognise her mother in the media, nor that the lawyer Priyanka Silva would be naively unaware that the US Army not only knew about these crimes, but themselves subjugated Japanese women in comfort stations, towards the end and after World War II.

Much is drawn from reality. TK Hay’s set, a collage of papers, is accentuated by Gillian Tan’s excellent lighting and video design, featuring much real-life documentary footage. More subtle is the gradual construction of a memorial statue – the set chairs sharing the exact same design.

Women’s and human rights – then as now – are presented as almost ‘fashionable’. The Apology too takes an intersectional look at oppression. ‘Korean men are farmers, women are farm animals,’ a phrase which later takes a dark turn when Han Yuna’s father, Han Min (Kwong Loke), is revealed as a former recruiter and collaborator (even his character is nuanced, as we hear how his sisters’ lives were at risk too).

Silva compares the colonisation of Sri Lanka – and one of its products, her Portuguese last name – to that of East Asia, a nod to writer Kyo Choi’s own time between London and Portugal (Han Min remarks, ‘I’d take them all over the Japanese.’)

Both the American and Japanese governments sought to wait these women’s lives out – ‘until they’re dead, and forgotten’ – hoping they would fall into posthumous historical obscurity. Not letting this be forgotten, is The Apology’s true triumph.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (Twitter: @jelsofron) for this review; their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms.

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