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The chorus of "Trojan Women". Courtesy of National Theatre of Korea.

SIFA’s “Trojan Women”: An Allegory for Modern Times

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By Elaine Chiew

(1116 words, 10-minute read)

Euripides’ play Trojan Women has been adapted and performed numerous times around the world, from a version written by Jean Paul Sartre to American playwright Charles Mee’s 2003 adaptation that included Holocaust and Hiroshima testimonials. [1] This time, it has been given a Korean pansori makeover by SIFA Festival Director and Cultural Medallion winner Ong Keng Sen in a collaboration with the National Theatre of Korea and performed at Victoria Theatre, Singapore. Ong conceived and directed this luminous and mesmerising Korean opera while the pansori was composed by Korean ‘living cultural asset’, Ahn Sook Sun (pictured below), with music composed by Jung Jae Il.

Ahn Sook Sun as Soul of Souls, “Trojan Women”. Photo courtesy of National Theatre of Korea.

Pansori, a Korean folk musical storytelling tradition usually performed by a vocalist and a drummer, goes as far back as 17th century Joseon Korea, and out of twelve epics, only five have survived in full. Its revitalisation in this global format owes a lot to the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, which breathed into it new life through its incorporation into Korean opera. While not the first Greek tragedy rendered in pansori by the National Theatre of Korea, nor even the first time Trojan Women has been sung in pansori for an international audience [2], many of the elements of pansori – its use of traditional instruments like buk, the Korean traditional drum, and gayageum, the Korean zither, its irregular rhythms to reflect abysmal emotional states, the husky vocal timbre of the wail in narrative singing – make it well-suited for Greek tragedy, and puts me in mind of African-American sorrow songs, allowing for the pure and deep expression of pain and sorrow.

An elegy of pure anguish is precisely what this performance of Trojan Women delivered, helmed by the indomitable mighty voice of Kim Kum-mi as Hecuba, the Queen of Troy. The opera opens with eight women in white, their costumes resembling sack-cloth (pictured below; as the play unfolds, the costumes blur the distinction between wedding and death shrouds). The women hold red balls of yarn (possibly signifying rivers of blood). They stand amidst the backdrop of a white cathedral-like structure (to symbolise the ruins of Troy), as they await their fates to be carted off as slaves.

Opening Scene (9 September), “Trojan Women”. Photo by Elaine Chiew

The opera, as conceived and directed by Ong, stays structurally faithful to Euripides’ version which focused predominantly on the women of Troy lamenting the Trojan War following Helen’s elopement with Paris (or abduction, more below). This performance also takes up the anti-war mantle originally contemplated by Euripides and is influenced by Sartre’s more contemporary adaptation in 1967. Thus, in threading this message further through the frame of the 21st century, the allegorical nature of this changgeuk demands that we look back in time, at the 20th century ‘theatre’ of conflicts Sartre had referenced, as well as the devastations of war Euripides had been stricken by, particularly the enslavement of women and children during the Peloponnesian War (434 – 404 BCE).

The allegory goes deeper though than sketching out the ravages of war. The feminist commentary here on wartime sexual violence and Western hegemony is especially acute within the context of Korean comfort women and Korean political history, particularly the Korean War. Being made the ‘whore’ of war is movingly sung by Cassandra (forced to be Agamemnon’s concubine), whose noteworthy performance was enhanced by her pathos-filled facial expressions (pictured below), while the pain of separation writ large is sung by Andromache, heartrendingly forced to surrender her baby son Astyanax.

Hecuba with Cassandra, “Trojan Women”. Photo courtesy of National Theatre of Korea.

The message here about the fate of women in war is all-encompassing: women are not present at the forefront of war, nor are they the decision-makers; women bear the costs and do the job of mending emotional suffering (here the yarn becomes a double entendre); women survive after the dead are counted to await whatever fate befalls them. In a stroke of ingenuity, the play inverts the backstage ‘invisible’ nature of women by having all the ostensible action – the arrival of ships to transport slaves, the burning of Troy, and most notably, the killing of the baby Astyanax – happen offstage. Korean Trojan women narrate and gaze into the distance, and the audience is gripped and brilliantly compelled to do the mental work of plot imagination.

The sheer technical ability of the chorus of Trojan Women was euphoria for the ears (although Hecuba sounded understandably less energetic in the first third after three nights of unrelenting outpour but really delivered with wracked gusto at the end).

The chorus of “Trojan Women”. Photo courtesy of National Theatre of Korea.

There are three men-as-men in the performance: weak-willed instigator of the Trojan War, King Menelaus; the humane Greek soldier Talthybios (despite his depraved official duty of having to kill Astyanax by throwing him from the high tower); and the Soul of Souls, the sage voice of Omniscience [3], all commendably performed. The casting of Kim Jun-soo as a male, or at least androgynous, Helen is interesting: Helen is vilified on stage as a ‘bitch’ and ‘harlot’ for deserting Troy with her lover Paris (although in history, her image is more ambiguous, with Renaissance painter Tintoretto even depicting it as a ‘rape’). Director Ong Keng Sen addresses Helen’s casting in his programme notes [4]: “From the beginning, I felt that the outsider role of Helen, who stands between the Greeks and the Trojans, is a character on the border.” Helen’s liminality, bolstered by the oxymoron of whether she is a ‘willing captive’ and the fact that her voice is “between man and woman,” add an ironic layer to the performance. In a counterpoint to Astyanax perhaps, Paris, Hecuba’s son, returns from the dead on piano accompaniment (pictured below), superimposing a time-inversion that is yet within the spirit of Euripides’ play, hints at the underlying animosity between the two women Helen and Hecuba, and signifies the cycle of our preoccupation with war over millenia.

Jung Jae Il as Paris, “Trojan Women”. Photo courtesy of National Theatre of Korea.

Given the all-round virtuoso performance, I did wish that more could have been done with the multimedia prop beyond changing visual scapes of ocean, flames, night-sky of stars, etc. The performance’s seamless melding of the traditional with the modern deserves praise: the pansori when sung by an individual is accompanied by a solo instrument, a nod to tradition, while the women chorus blends modern pop with pansori voices. The piano and Helen’s singing introduce a distinctive break, in line perhaps with Ong’s intention of depicting Helen as a “provocation of difference” and to signal the interpretive passage of Euripedes’ play through eras and continents, a historical journey further metaphorised by the journey Trojan women are on the cusp of making.

What has stayed particularly memorable is the haunting lilt of the lone flute in moments of the pansori, and the emotional caw of vistas of sung dirge notes. The pain of being woman has never been this raw and visceral.

 

Selected Reviews

Trojan Women, by National Theater of Korea” by Ng Yi-sheng (SIFA blog)

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

“A Musical of Pure Emotion” by Akshita Nanda (The Straits Times)


[1] Charles L. Mee, Trojan Women: A Love Story, the (re)making project, accessed September 10, 2017.

[2] See Elizabeth W. Son, “Korean Trojan Women: Performing Wartime Sexual Violence,” Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 33, Number 2, Fall 2016, pp. 369-394, accessed September 10, 2017.

[3] Performance on 9th September, when the Soul of Souls was sung by Yu Tae-pyung-yang.

[4] Ong Keng Sen, “The Sound of A Voice” in programme on Trojan Women, 7, 8, 9 September, 2017.

 

Trojan Women was commissioned and co-produced by the National Theatre of Korea and the Singapore International Festival of Arts. It ran from the 7th to 9th September at the Victoria Theatre. Performed in Korean with English surtitles, it was directed by SIFA 2017 Festival Director Ong Keng Sen and presented by National Changgeuk Company of Korea.

Guest Contributor Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. Her most recent stories can be found in Potomac Review and Singapore Love Stories (Monsoon Books, 2016). She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts.

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