“So what is it about?” asks my husband before we go see Black and White Tea Room at the Assembly Rooms.
“I can’t remember, but it sounded really cool. I think it’s a ghost story. Like a ghost story where someone’s dead wife comes back to haunt them in a tea room,” I reply.
If you’ve ever placed any faith in my ability to recall the synopses of plays, then I apologise. As the above exchange proves, I appear to have a pretty bad memory and a pretty good ability to convince myself and others of a truth I entirely invented. Where did I get the idea that Black and White Tea Room was a ghost story involving a dead wife? From the press release that, now I read it again says:
A therapist has set up his practice in the tea room of his dead wife and welcomes in his new client. Mutual trust is needed to make the therapy work. However, it soon becomes clear that the two have had a previous encounter, which was far from positive. The consultation does not go to plan and an intense situation develops…
So sometime between reading this in an overcrowded inbox of Edinburgh emails, booking a ticket and rocking up to see it, I had both changed and embellished the facts of the work. This meant that Black and White Tea Room was, for me, something of a surprise encounter, and one that contained elements of unreality thanks to a slight bending of the truth. How very appropriate…
What actually happens in the play written and directed by Cha Hyun Suk is that a man prepares to visit the grave of his dead wife, but is distracted by the surprise arrival of a new client to his counselling business. The second man, who arrives zipped tightly into a light anorak and drenched in rain, is buzzing with anxiety. The older man is calm, but borderline condescending – until the visitor gradually explains why he is here and, more importantly, how it is the two men previously met.
Spoiler alert: this is not a ghost story. Nor is it a story in which a huge amount of action occurs, instead everything unfolds at a measured page with the drama entirely situated in the characters’ emotions. One of the most interesting things about this play is that the mystery circulates more around the now-counsellor (that genuinely is a bit of a spoiler) than the “mysterious” visitor.
This is partly because the younger man reveals his reasons for being there and it’s easy to sympathise with the motivation underpinning his arrival. In the case of the other, what disconcerts is the idea of memory – specifically how we can choose to write out of our own pasts atrocious acts committed, even to the point of refashioning ourselves as the type of human suited to a profession dedicated to helping people suffering from various forms of trauma.
South Korea’s Theatre Hooam are staging Black and White Tea Room in Korean (with English subtitles) and in English on alternate days. I saw it with the English cast – a decision made solely on the gaps available in the Edinburgh spreadsheet. In all honesty, I wish I had seen the Korean cast, not in any way because the English cast were substandard (they were largely excellent) but because I really like seeing theatre performed in other languages, and something about the act of translation would have added another layer of filtered truth or interpretation to the work that, despite not being a ghost story is still, quietly, haunting.
Black and White Tea Room is on until 25 august 2018 at Assembly Rooms. Click here for more details.