Kyo Choi is a name to watch, a South Korean playwright based in London whose work is already attracting attention with further productions planned for the Arcola Theatre this year and previous attachments to the Soho Theatre and National Theatre Studio. Her latest play Galápagos given a short run at the Bridewell Theatre by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London examines the issue of consent and the socialised culture of teenage interaction that results in the sexual assault of a young girl. Choi starts her play after the event, exploring both the legal process as the case is investigated by the police and assessed by her lawyer examining its likelihood to proceed to trial and the wider social impact as her peers and her parents discuss truth and culpability.
Galápagos is concerned with the broad applicability of sexual politics and the events Choi’s play depicts draw on allusions to classical mythology in which men had the freedom to travel and conquer while women who tried to over-reach were punished with madness, damnation and death. Choi expands the notion – building on Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines play cycle – to note the frequency of rape, assault and male toxicity in stories of the Gods and their power with Leda and the swan a key reference point in the contemporary school-based scenario that Galápagos considers.
The long history of female oppression as the targets of male violence is brought to the fore using multiple actors in the leading role delineated by a shared costume palette in a particular shade of bright mint green. Each scene advances the overall chronology of what is the experience of a single woman and multiple women at the same time, undertaken in rotation by the five performers. In emphasising the systemic nature of male violence against women and the cultural influences that create and perpetuate it, Choi presents the audience with a universal multi-faced complainant (not ‘victim’ according to the lawyers) and yet only a single attacker because, as the legal profiling suggests, the future and individuality of this man is more promising and therefore more important than the woman he attacked.
“How can you tell the difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity” one character asks a teacher, a debate that seers through Choi’s episodic structure that in the first half seeks to capture a variety of different perspectives in the aftermath of a party in which our unnamed protagonist was drunkenly dragged to a side room and raped. The boys are unashamedly candid in their debrief, smugly recalling the goading crowd at the event, the girl’s inebriated state and even casually bantering about rape as they congratulate the attacker on his victory. Only one friend has reservations which he attempts to voice, but doesn’t have the courage to publicly support the girl and provide the supporting evidence she needs.
Later, Choi looks at the consequences for the male lead in a scene set in 2050 which explores how his long-lasting guilt stacks-up against the comfortable life he managed to hold onto, working in Whitehall while accruing an ex-wife and children along the way. Yet something has continued to gnaw at his soul, seeking a kind of redemption that for a moment you worry Galápagos might give him but, as the rest of the play demonstrates, an eleventh-hour sorry just isn’t enough.
There are three other key strands; first Choi couches her discussions of female behaviour and the centuries-old and (un)surprisingly consistent social attitudes to female sexuality in the reactions of family, friends and teachers who debate their responsibility for the events at the party. The girl’s parents are seen in a variety of scenarios that begin with a blustering defence of their daughter but a darker, unresolved tone slowly emerges as her father hides a belief that the girl’s clothing on the night in question and even her mother’s feminist attitudes have left their child unprepared for the world of men. And it’s a really strong concept as Choi moves the whole discussion of culpability and toxicity from the external world and right into the girl’s domestic space and influences.
Other adult figures prove equally unreliable. Her unsympathetic lawyer is constantly balancing the scales of justice in his head, interested only in convincing evidence that will help him win the case and unconcerned by any trauma his client may have suffered. Equally, most of her teachers are keen to pass the buck, insisting that an event that didn’t take place on school property is not their concern, that guilt is a fluid concept and callously fail to prevent the students running into each other in class. Friends meanwhile are either perplexed or concealing similar experiences – one of which is affectingly recounted and re-enacted – that deepens the sense of isolation around these teenagers unable to talk openly and without judgement about their experiences. All of these scenarios feel ripe for expansion and greater exploration in Choi’s patchwork narrative, but still their collective effect suggest the unilateral failure of external support systems for the protection of and support for women.
Second, Galápagos presents the negative impact of popular culture influences on the representation of healthy relationships between women and men. The second half opens with a Love Island type show in a slightly over-lengthy but pointed sequence that splits the focus between the reality TV action and the teenagers commenting via social media platforms. Designed to quickly encapsulate the backwards step that representation of women in competitive dating shows has taken, it comments on the obsession with body image, surface appearance, trolling and the tiresome media dramatic device that needlessly pits women against each other for entertainment – a point Choi also makes elsewhere with a potentially superfluous segment about Meghan Markel and Kate Middleton reflecting a similar point made in Mad Men that categorised women as prim Jackies or bombshell Marilyns. Still, the poisonous and pervasive context is Choi’s point and these sections perpetuate behaviours in men and women that the writer argues are centuries old.
The third strand in the play is the impact of Greek myth on contemporary culture used to create an initial connection between the survivor and the attacker when Choi spools back in Act Two to explore some of the interactions leading to the sexual assault. And it is classical stories that Galápagos particular draws on to explain the basis of attitudes to women who are there to be possessed, conquered and abandoned. Choi has used this duality in female sexuality within the play, creating the geeky outer-self of our heroine which contrast with the externally-imposed notions of all women’s internal sinful wantonness that tales of Pandora, Leda and, later, the Biblical Eve have represented.
The Bridewell Theatre’s production directed by Gemma Aked-Priestley is a great showcase for MA students from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama able to perform a new contemporary work which contains a number of different theatrical devices that merge a straightforwardly dramatic style in which narrative development is the driving factor with an illusory or fantastical quality where characters from Greek myth burst into real life to create a sense of unease.
Movement pieces and choreography designed by Quang Kien Van are used to punctuate the piece which often take a sinister turn. Frequently the five characters known as Girl 1 dance together in a coordinated, jerky pack, their tendency to haunt the stage a valuable reminder of the broader applicability of Choi’s themes. The mythology-style reality show begins as a dance of female power as Atalanta joins the group demonstrating her sensuality but Van changes the mood rapidly as the suddenly rampaging boys round-up the girls who cower terrified as they are surrounded.
Choi also uses dreamscape to explore the attacker’s alternative fantasy sequence in which a Swan Lake-inspired ballet takes the story of Leda and transforms it into a piece in which acceptance of the word ‘no’ and the chastisement of others prevents the attack. With swan make-up and ethereal costume created by designer Sammy Dowson who brings a classical feel to the set, along with Rachel Sampley’s low lighting against a moonlit video backdrop, the production captures the romance of the ballet setting, an unreal dream feeling that provokes Girl 1’s final response.
The more absurdist moments don’t all work convincingly including the use of mask to create bird-headed teachers, a brief explanation of which is given in Act One but never quite makes sense as they caw and squawk at students who automatically understand them. And while the teachers are separated from their pupils, this is not a device that extends to other adults nor is it entirely consistent with the transformation theme that continually links the perpetrators and survivors of sexual crime with their Greek forbears who assume or are given creature form.
Directed by Aked-Priestley, Galápagos holds its various strands together very nicely, moving seamlessly between naturalistic scenes and the more imaginative sequences as well as socio-cultural comment pieces. The flashes and snippets of video design projected onto the back wall between scenes create a backdrop that bombards teenagers with images, text messages, notifications and sexualised content while the political endorsement of male aggression and unchallenged power is emphasised through newsreel footage of authority figures encouraging and even becoming figureheads for toxic masculinity.
The five Girl 1’s, Aleeza Humranwala, Alex O’Donnell, Clarissa Zamba, Emma Veares and Tegan Verheul create a consistent single character while presenting individual aspects of the weeks and months following the attack that builds a collective understanding of the female experience. Joshua Going’s perpetrator, Boy 1, has nuance with empathy and intelligence but an equally loathsome male bravado and shamelessness about his ‘conquest’. There is also particularly good work from Luke Oliver whose moving account of male rape is sensitively handled.
Choi’s play makes for an obvious comparison with Nina Raine’s far less satisfactory Consent which failed to investigate its titular topic and instead focused on middle class people drinking wine and having affairs. Galápagos has far more to say about the context for and impact of sexual violence against women which with a small amount of reshaping could be very powerful indeed. Choi is certainly a playwright to watch.