“What Remains of Us”: Bristol Old Vic

Crysse Morrison in Bristol

Written by David Lane and directed by Sita Calvert-Ennals, this poignant two-hander follows an imagined reunion between an elderly ex-soldier who has made a life in North Korea since the end of the war and his daughter who remained with the rest of his family in South Korea.


Jung Sun den Hollander and Kwong Loke. Photo credit: Kirsten McTernan.


The Korean War (overshadowed by Vietnam) formally ended in 1953 but was never truly resolved. It split thousands of families who have continued their lives in disparate cultures, essentially growing apart in mind as well as body though a few state-supervised reunions were arranged. This factual background is essential for an understanding of this moving two-hander. Ushers give brief notes on the situation to every audience member on arrival.

In this imagined reunion set in the year 2000, Seung-Ki travels over the border from South Korea for an officially arranged and supervised re-meeting with her ex-soldier father, Kwan-Suk after 50 years of separation. After the initial silent evocation of emotion on both sides, conversation starts and then stutters as both realize they have grown so far apart that they can barely communicate.

Each is convinced that their society is the better one, and the difference in their values constantly intrudes into their stilted exchanges. For nearly 90 minutes, political disagreement seems their only shared language. Seung-Ki has waited all her adult life for this reunion, her long-lost father always in her mind, and she continually urges her father to recall his abandoned family. Kwan-Sun, whether through personal conviction or fear of the totalitarian state where he now lives, resists her and repeatedly claims that his life in North Korea is idyllic.


Jung Sun den Hollander and Kwong Loke. Photo credit: Kirsten McTernan.


Much of their struggle to connect is shown in slow movement and imagined fight sequences (choreographed by Dan Canham) which, with the dislocated fragments of their dialogue, combine to create an extraordinary and powerful performance. Kwong Loke as the initially intransigent father who is re-meeting his child only because he believes it is his duty, brings an extraordinary unexpressed yet plangent emotion to his fragmentary speech, and Jung Sun den Hollander, as the daughter of his first marriage, shares her backstory with great passion.

The impact of this story lies in the unspoken emotions emerging; their real dialogue, whether loving or angry, is never full expressed – indeed, ironically, the first time agreement is vocalized it’s by privately belittling other diners at the restaurant. However, it isn’t totally clear whether military personnel are observing the couple at certain times but not throughout, and the stage design by Lulu Tam seems slightly cluttered without fully supporting either the realism of their connection or the symbolism of their differences.

This production relates to a specific historical era but loneliness and longing for connection continue to affect many, for different reasons in different contexts, and there were feedback forms to continue the discussion. A pinboard outside the door of the Weston Studio invited audience members to add post-it notes about anyone they might be missing. The board was filled with poignant messages, suggesting that this production has been much valued by many.


Kwong Loke and Jung Sun den Hollander. Photo credit: Kirsten McTernan.