This Isn’t Romance

Soho Theatre, 12 February – 7 March 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Korea-born, Essex-raised Miso Blake (Jennifer Lim) returns to Seoul to find Han (Mo Zainal), the brother she left behind 25 years ago – and the siblings fall immediately and uncontrollably in love.

This Isn’t Romance – the Soho Theatre’s new production by In-Sook Chappell, winner of the 2007 Verity Bargate Award – is about youth, innocence, cultural and sexual identity as well. But incest is a theme that can’t help but eclipse all others in its power to raise a reaction. This play is going to offend some people – and isn’t that the litmus test for vital art?

Convincingly justifying incestuous attraction is at once a delicate and Herculean task. The press pack for the show included a lengthy article on Genetic Sexual Attraction, a largely unacknowledged phenomenon affecting close relatives separated until adulthood. But for those disinclined to do preparatory reading for what should, after all, be an evening’s entertainment, several aspects of the production concertedly wrestle with overcoming the audience’s instinctive reactions – and an open mind is still essential.

Through the siblings’ vital first private encounter, Chappell walks us steadily through the complex cocktail of emotions involved: the shock of familiarity, guilt, anger, dependence, the urge to protect one another. Lim and Zainal flit from one to the next rather than attempt to externalise all at once the contradictory feelings bubbling within – flowing smoothly from the lustful embrace of lovers, through tense self-disgust into the innocent embrace of children seeking comfort.

This means we’re denied any potential virtuoso moments displaying the full extent of either sibling’s inner conflict, and understanding their motivations becomes a cerebral exercise – keeping track of the sequence of emotions we’re shown and applying the full spectrum to each subsequent line, action and expression. This is challenging enough for someone that wants to understand – so what about the sceptics?

This Isn’t Romance is a fearless exploration of some incredibly difficult subject matter, and like all such works its task will be largely thankless. The huge effort it makes towards humanising a widely demonised phenomenon will no doubt prove enlightening to the already well-informed or open-minded, but that’s like converting the choir – they were already partway there. Ironically, the people the play most wants to convince are those too paralysed by their (admittedly justifiable) prejudices to let it touch them.

Written by In-Sook Chappell

Crew includes Lisa Goldman (director), Jon Bausor (designer), Jenny Kagan (lighting designer), Matt McKenzie (sound designer), Doug O’Connell (AV designer) and William Conacher (dialect coach)

Cast includes Jennifer Lim (Miso Blake), Matthew Marsh (Jack Cash) and Mo Zainal (Han Som Kim)

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