It always takes one lone voice, someone brave enough to stand up and speak about what happened to them. Soon, others will follow inspired by that first individual and that is how truths eventually come to light. With Maria Schrader and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s She Said about the journalists supporting Harvey Weinstein’s victims coming to the London Film Festival next month, there is a very contemporary interest in powerful men eventually brought to justice by the collective voices of women. But for many sufferers of sexual assault and violence, what happens next? And is that justice ever really enough? Kyo Choi’s new play, The Apology, looks at sexual slavery in the Second World War and insists that a tactical political apology isn’t remotely enough for the women and their families denied official acknowledgment of responsibility from modern governments.
Choi is one of the most exciting new playwrights of the post-pandemic period. Her focus on sexual violence against women and its cultural origins in the complex inheritance of trauma and patriarchal structures has resulted in two of the most interesting plays of 2022. Galápagos opened at the Bridewell Theatre in March, a fascinating piece performed by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama students looking at campus rape and the long influence of Greek mythology in shaping male attitudes to women’s bodies and their ownership.
Choi’s second play, premiering at the Arcola Theatre, is just as poignant, looking at military-sanctioned sexual slavery by the Japanese army which abducted Korean women and forced them to work in camps satisfying as many as 20 soldiers per day, a fact kept silent until the early 1990s when a Human Rights lawyer began an investigation into war crimes against women, followed by an unsatisfactory apology from the, then, Japanese leader which is the basis of this play.
Using original testimony and research, The Apology is a more successful drama than Silence which uses a similar structure and verbatim approach to bring historic testimony to the stage while arguing for the contemporary relevance of the issues it contains. Where Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood focused their evidence-gathering around a single female journalist character writing a book about the brutality and consequences of Indian Partition, The Apology places lawyer Priyanka Silva at its heart as the conduit for several intersecting lives and stories revealed over several years as part of a United Nations investigation. But the character of Priyanka is not a passive one as the journalist in Silence was, and Choi uses her to examine the wider implications of the case being built against the Japanese army as well as its universal political and moral ramifications. These reach far beyond the pain of individual survivors as governments attempt to obfuscate and demur, playing for time until the women have died rather than admit to any guilt, shame or official culpability – a situation shared also by the Korean family depicted in the play.
But Choi’s first purpose it to correct a misdefinition. Given the rather coy term of “comfort women” by history, The Apology directly challenges the linguistic sanitisation of what was in fact sexual slavery and the mass, organised rape of women in lands occupied by the Japanese Army. And what happened to them was not prostitution – the women were neither willing participants, nor were they paid – instead they endured repeated violation until the camps were liberated at the end of the war. These revised definitions are challenged throughout the play by its only male character in an official position, an American who tries to deter Priyanka’s investigation. But the lawyer, and indeed Choi herself, are rightly ferocious in their insistence that this was an act of State violence against female bodies which must be openly acknowledged and responsibility accepted. And, as armies sweep through the region in the final months of the war, Japan is not the only nation to take advantage of the pre-existing “comfort women.”
The Apology, then, has three strands; the first gives the play its shape, focusing on Priyanka’s work from 1991 to 1996 when the UN’s official report was published. This is the primary dramatic driver in which the lawyer gathers and presents statistical evidence, interviews victims and responds to broader attempts by her American counterpart based in Seoul to derail or challenge her work. As the process develops from preliminary inquiry to official investigation, Choi uses the passing of the years as a platform to examine the seemingly slow but methodical nature of intergovernmental organisations and the complexities of building a legal case – one that like Kim Sun-Hee, the first woman to speak out, Priyanka must pursue alone. The extent to which this can be influenced or compromised by contemporary (and indeed historic) political relationships is an interesting one and Choi looks at the protection of American interest, not only in shielding itself from counter-accusation of war crimes but how the ‘voluntary’ funding structure potentially compromises neutral institutions like the UN for which the US currently provides an annual grant 10% higher than any other nation.
Within this structure, Choi introduces parallel stories set also in the 1990s but with roots in the events of the Second World War. The most powerful of these is the story of Kim Sun-Hee, a former slave desperate to forget what happened to her but, 50 years on, remains deeply traumatised by the camps. This is the most poignant section of Choi’s play, the experience of a 16-year old girl offered the chance to become a nurse and instead taken to a labour camp where she is raped by two men on the first night and hundreds if not thousands more in the years that follow. Told in retrospect by the older Sun-Hee, Choi gives her two different outlets for her narrative. One is through interviews with Priyanka that are often deeply moving and sensitively discussed. While there is no graphic detail or sensationalism, the extent and frequency of her violation smashes against an almost fruitless need for justice, the disappointment that speaking out doesn’t bring instant vilification to those who abused her.
But Sun-Hee also has another private space in which to tell her story where Choi gives primacy to the character’s own interior voice and experience quite separate from the rigorous but administrative demands of the investigation. This is sometimes difficult to watch as the character proclaims the deep psychological pain that afflicts her still, chastising herself and unable to contain the different emotions that still rage inside her mixing shame, guilt and fear of the consequences with anger and a feeling of loss for the briefly carefree girl she once was. Seemingly talking to her younger embodiment, Sun-Hee berates her equivalent self as Choi brings some of her memories to life, giving them a freshness for the audience that emphasises the depth of the trauma. But there is purpose here, giving weight to the testimony without sensationalising the experience for dramatic effect which Choi manages responsibly and with consideration for the reality of her subjects.
The final subset of the play centres around a family experience, a father and daughter concealing their own truths from one another. Initially this is the least successful part of The Apology, the interaction between Chief Purser Han Yuna returning from international flights to see her retired parent Han Min is a little stilted, even slightly repetitive as the awkward domestic life of the characters and Yuna’s absent mother feels a little undercooked. So too does Min’s refusal to address his emotional concealment which has a slightly soapy dynamic.
But the value of this pairing is much clear in Act Two and a compelling interview scene between Min and Priyanka is one of the strongest in the play as several new layers are revealed. And these are important dynamics being explored, not just of the silence of the Korean people in the years since the Second World War and the shame (and blame) still attached to the women themselves, but how these socio-political responses have shaped domestic inheritance between the generations. When Yuna reacts against the saintly worship of her mother, proclaiming hatred for the woman she never knew, the audience is ahead of the character in understanding how deeply three levels of the play – the political, personal and the domestic – have conspired to create an inherited silence among those most deeply affected.
Sarah Lam is outstanding as Sun-Hee and her first moments on stage are immediately affecting as her character vocalises her pain. The need to find some kind of justice but also understanding, even forgiveness is palpable while Lam captures well the fear of being the first to speak out and the disappointed hope that it will make a difference, that just saying the words aloud will be enough. But Lam also moves Sun-Hee to a different kind of reconciliation with the past in the second Act that becomes something like acceptance of self if not quite the retribution and compensation she wanted.
Sharan Phull’s Priyanka is a determined and quietly indomitable character, prepared to put in the time to create a compelling case but respectful of the people that she represents. Some of Phull’s best scenes are in argumentative combat with Ross Armstrong’s Jock Taylor, a borderline flirtatious relationship – for him at least – that tries to sway Priyanka by any means necessary, but Phull imbues her character with an integrity and purpose that drive the story forward.
There is good support from Minhee Yeo as Yuna representing a confused post-war generation unable to relate to her parents while Kwong Loke really takes the opportunity to get under the surface of Min in Act Two as the truth about his life is finally revealed and Loke’s strong performance is one of the play’s most successful scenes. Completing the cast, Jessica Baek plays Kwon Bok-Hae, the younger version of Sun-Hee who speaks very little but captures the lightness of youth as well as the dark period of captivity and debasement she endures in the character’s memory.
Designer TK Hay has papered the walls, floor and staircase in what must be the pages of the UN’s report, effectively emphasising the vast numbers of women whose story this is across Asia in the mid to late 1940s, some of whom appear in projected images designed by Gillian Tan towards the end of the play. Directed by Ria Parry, plenty of time is given to the testimonies of survivors as well as the complicated process of investigation helping the audience to understand personal betrayals, the changing stakes and international political avoidance that interact across this story, but the show retains a decent pace across its 135-minute running time.
Choi’s play is powerful without being sentimental, avoiding the kind of western hand-wringing that often accompanies issues like this. Instead, it looks to establish the facts beyond doubt and the importance of building an argument for war crimes against women that makes The Apology all the more effective. It is ultimately a question of human rights, Choi and Priyanka argue. Sexual violence against women will sadly always be a part of conflict, rape is a weapon of war but while the UN have made it an official war crime, conviction is rare. It may only need the voice of one woman to inspire others but until she is believed and not shamed, what hope is there for justice?