There are multiple ways to admire this production of a Greek classic, directed by Singaporean Ong Keng Sen for the National Theatre of Korea, specifically their opera section. The Korean Changgeuk opera incorporates a particular form of indigenous Korean singing style known as pansori, which uses the lower guttural registers of the voice with such intensity it can lead to rupture of the vocal cords. In this production, commissioned nearly ten years ago now, the musical score was created in collaboration between the pansori expert and primadonna Ahn Sook-sun and the K-pop producer Jung Jae-il who also wrote the score for the Oscar-winning film Parasite. Underlining its global reach however, Ong Keng Sen’s Trojan Women additionally includes elements of jazz and blues.
When this production visited London’s South Bank Centre in 2018, its most striking feature was perceived to be the director’s casting/dramaturgical intervention which resulted in the part of Helen, the woman whose face (in)famously ‘launched a thousand ships’, being played by a male pansori star, eye-candy Kim Jun-su. The brave decision was hailed by the Guardian at the time as a moment of ‘queering Korean opera.’ The associated effect of surprise and othering certainly lands itself well to the suspense around the long-awaited appearance of the main culprit for everyone’s suffering within this play’s narrative proceedings. Helen’s solo arrives towards the end of the customary ancient Greek succession of monologues, interspliced with multiple choral numbers. Here the solos belong to the valiant Trojan victims of the siege: the towering matriarch Hecuba (Kim Kum-mi), the morally elevated Cassandra (Yi So-yeon), the gently stoic Andromache (Kim Mi-jin). The elegance of the performances is further enhanced by a subtly codified visual design of the performance space – especially Austin Switser’s timelessly elemental video projections against the magnanimously receptive backdrop of Cho Myung-hee’s pastel-coloured palatial vestibule.
However, what really gets the audience up on its feet into a long ovation at the end is the increasingly apparent intrinsic anti-war message of this intercultural tragedy.
Ong Keng Sen Director and Conception
Bae Sam-sik Writer
Ahn Sook-sun Pansori Composer
Jung Jae-il Music Director and Composer
Wen Hui Choreographer
Cho Myung-hee Set Designer
Scott Zielinski Lighting Designer
Austin Switser Video Designer
Kim Moo-hong Costume Designer
Gee Young Sound Designer
Park Hyo-Jeong Hair and Make-up Designer
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Duška Radosavljević.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.