Melissa Blease reviews Wild Goose Dreams, directed by Michael Boyd, on at Ustinov Studio until 21 December

What have a totalitarian dictatorship, love, the internet, loneliness, guilt and penguins got in common? One can easily imagine that, in innovative Ustinov artistic director’s Lawrence Boswell’s demiurgic mind, the answer to that question, on discovering Wild Goose Dreams, was “everything!” 

And so it came to pass that Boswell added Asia to his exploratory repertoire of international theatre, bringing South Korean author Hansol Jung’s unconventional love story for the digital age to Bath direct from a successful off-Broadway run, directed for the UK audience by acclaimed former RSC director Michael Boyd.

You know how theatre audiences are always politely reminded, just before curtain up, to turn their phones off? In this instance, you could pretty much leave all your social media/YouTube/email/text alert channels on at full volume in six different windows without interrupting the onstage cacophony of beep-beep jingle-jangle clatter. Should you choose to be so bad mannered, though, you’d miss out on the quieter moments subtly woven into a quietly tender story. Despite the constant noise and brouhaha that carries Wild Goose Dreams along, it’s basically a classic tale of two people attempting to make sense of love across a physical, emotional and age-gap divide, set against the cold climate of political circumstance and technology.

London Kim (Guk Minsung) is one of South Korea’s thousands of “goose fathers”: a married man who has sent his wife and daughter to America where his daughter can get a western education, funded by her dad. Yoo Nanhee (Chuja Seo) is a defector from North Korea, seemingly leading an independent life but plagued by guilt about deserting her father. Both characters are lonely, both of them are bored, and both are in search of distraction; one swift swipe right on online dating site Love Genie, however, gives them both the opportunity to let all manner of emotions out of their respective emotional bottles.

Setting the scenes that carry the whole story along, designer Jean Chan’s simple but effective stark set transports us to both the over-familiar and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the internet, while a dynamic ensemble cast work in fast-paced, tightly-knit unison to actualise the online experience for the stage. Lighting, sound, music, and movement all play key roles in the sensory overload, while continually repeated, commonplace 21st century phrases and soundbites (“like!”, “delete!” “smiley face!”, “refresh page!”, “buy this!”, “click on this link!”, and on and on and on) toss us along on the shifting tides of virtual life. But despite (or perhaps, because of?) the almost constant clamour and commotion, Minsung and Seo manage to create their characters’ own little bubble of harmony, both real and imagined.

Although highly effective in terms of keeping attention levels up, the frenetic sonic barrage becomes overwhelming at times: the North Korean army dreamscapes are confusing; the GPS fails to pinpoint key characters’ exact locations at crucial points; the recurring penguin metaphor is just a little bit too tricksy. By the time the unanticipated, refreshingly unpredictable denouement – while clever and more than a tad moving – is reached, the allegorical elements that underpin this ambitious modern day love story feels like a virtual reality click too far. Having said that, one woman’s “thumbs up!” is another’s “kissy-face-with-bulging-heart-eyes!” – and Wild Goose Dreams is definitely worth taking a break from your phone for. 

Main image: London Kim (Guk Minsung), Crystal Yu (Woman & Ensemble), Jon Chew (Ensemble) and Momo Yeung (Wife and Ensemble) © Simon Annand