SIFA 2017: Trojan Women by Ong Keng Sen and the National Theater of Korea (Review)

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One thing that can be said about SIFA Festival Director Ong Keng Sen: whenever he attempts to create a new work, he always aims high and goes all the way, resulting at the very least in an unforgettable theatrical spectacle.

With Trojan Women, Ong breathes new life into a centuries old Korean art form by applying it to an ancient Greek play. Based off Euripedes’ tragedy that depicts the suffering of the women of Troy following their defeat at the hands of the Greek, Trojan Women is a new take on the play as Ong collaborates with Pansori legend Ahn Sook Sun and writer Bae Sam Sik to adapt the play as a Changgeuk (Korean opera).

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Having never even heard of Pansori prior to Trojan Women, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Pansori is a traditional form of musical storytelling, and is a key component in Changgeuk. But safe to say we were completely hooked on the haunting melodies and intensity of the performance from the very get go. As Trojan Women began, Ahn Sook Sun herself took to the stage as the Soul of Souls, singing a prologue about suffering and tragedy. Despite her small stature, Ahn possesses an incredible stage presence, and her aching voice reverberated through the theatre with astounding strength, capturing the essence of a wise, otherworldly being burdened by the emotional weight of the world.

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Trojan Women, for the most part, revolves around Hecuba, Queen of Troy and her brethren of women. Playing Hecuba was the indomitable Kim Kum-mi. Pained as she is from incredible loss, displayed prominently through her expressions, her cracked voice breaks through with a relentless pride even in the face of defeat. Kim possesses an undying energy, as she wails and shouts, enraged and refusing to be subdued in almost every scene, leaving an emotional impact each time she opens her mouth to curse the gods, make accusations or mourn the death of Troy itself.

Hecuba is joined by an equally capable chorus of Trojan women (Jung Mi-Jung, Heo Ae-sun, Na Yoon-young, Seo Jung-Kum, Kim Mi Jin, Lee Youn-joo, Min Eun-kyung and Cho Yu-ah). The chorus is impressively well-rehearsed, not a single note out of step and provided a stirring chorus of voices in literally every scene, filling the space with a layer of almost corporeal sadness. At times, the chorus works in unison to perform choreography (by Wen Hui), working to further create an air of unease, such as encircling another cast member like vultures homing in on a carcass. One is reminded of the Furies, Greek goddesses of vengeance, from the chorus’ performance.

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As the story progresses, we’re introduced in turn, to some of the more significant women who suffered at the hands of the Greek as well. Yi So-yeon delivers in her portrayal of Hecuba’s daughter, the cursed clairvoyant Cassandra, and her performance brings out Cassandra’s madness without going overboard into hysteria, a truly disturbing, lucid vengeance burning in her eyes. Kim Ji-sook also excels as Andromache, Hecuba’s daughter in law, and displayed a fierce onstage antagonism with Hecuba, pitting the two women against each other, fangs bared. From a mother filled only with anger for her circumstances, lashing out at every person around her, Kim Ji-sook takes her performance as Andromache to new heights by showcasing the transformation of her character into a resigned one, the pessimism and despondence at losing her child emanating from her every word.

Finally, no Trojan war is complete without the face that launched a thousand ships. Playing Helen of Troy, in a genderbent twist, is Kim Jun-Soo, whose entry is heralded by a white grand piano that accompanies him onstage (played by Jung Jae Il) for his solo songs. The slender Kim exudes feminine charm as he pleads for his life against Menelaus (Choi Ho-Sung, who provides a nice contrast with his loud, brash, hypermasculine performance), and his songs are given a distinctly more melodic edge, almost ballad-like, as his voice soars, charms and tempts with an innocent quality, a fitting guise for the snake underneath. Beautiful in both face and voice, it’s no wonder Menelaus is ultimately swayed by the act, much to Hecuba’s chagrin.

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One of the key features of Pansori also features live music, and the nine musicians were instrumental in providing the rousing music to accompany the cast’s singing. Composed and directed by Jung Jae Il, the music was always appropriate for each scene, bringing out the nuances of each character’s story and successfully weaving the sounds into the setting, integral and practically inseparable from the performance. In most scenes, the women are also transformed into walking galaxies and skies, as Austin Switser’s video projections are projected onto them, lending an otherworldly aspect to the chorus, adding to the atmosphere and mood of the play. In Cassandra’s scene for example, the set became awash in a video of the sun, and one could practically feel the heat of Cassandra’s rage as she sings angrily and vows a curse and vegeance upon her future tormentors.

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Bolstered by extremely talented singers/actors, live music and a truly unique, ingenuous vision, Ong Keng Sen’s Trojan Women manages to successfully make Pansori accessible for the mainstream audience, and even improves on Euripedes’ original text by adding even more drama to the tragedy, the trauma and wrath of the women emphasized in song, so much that their pain resonates with audience members’ very soul, while adding a new dimension to the play by suggesting the importance of female solidarity in the face of calamity. Trojan Women successfully marries the unusual combination of Pansori and Greek tragedy with this incredibly bold, visually and sonically spectacular production, and more than ever, reminds us again of Ong Keng Sen’s status as a true visionary, constantly pushing past the boundaries of our local arts scene and bringing it to all time heights.

Trojan Women will be performed in Korean with English surtitles at the Victoria Theatre till 9th September. Tickets available from SISTIC

Trojan Women
When: 7th – 9th September, 8pm
Where: Victoria Theatre

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