Trojan Women, by National Theater of Korea

Ng Yi-Sheng

September 11, 2017

Reviews have been coming in for Trojan Women, and it sounds as if folks are loving it! (Even though the headline writer for The Straits Times called it “a musical of pure emotion”, which makes it sound kind of like Les Miz. #kinda?)

Channgeuk TROJANWOMEN National Theater of Korea provides 6

Image courtesy of National Theater of Korea

The show really is about raw emotion, though—it’s a highly charged tsunami of grief, with none of the pomo intellectual posturing that director Ong Keng Sen loves so much. From the get-go, it’s all about these doomed women in white on stage, raising their hands to the heavens and bewailing their fate to be enslaved after the war, losing hope after hope as the Greeks refuse them even the mercy of allowing their last infant prince to be left un-murdered…

Was it over the top? Yes, it was very over the top. Noorlinah Mohamed confessed to me that these women were weeping in every rehearsal, giving it 200, 500% every time, and occasionally the cerebral part of me muttered, “I get it, you’re sad, get on with it.”

But mostly I was enthralled by the sheer sound of pansori: the low, even hoarsely guttural at times sound of Korean epic song coming from these women’s mouths, so congruent (as playwright Alfian Sa’at noted) with the devastation of Greek tragedy.

And how moving, also, that it was women at the centre of attention, and that the diva of the show is an older woman, the conquered Queen Hecuba (Kim Kum Mi). Women about to become slaves. The most voiceless in history, but right here in the canon, keening their despair.

Hecuba and her chorus of eight women remain on stage almost entirely throughout the two-hour production—they’re already present, slumped against the floor when we’re entering the theatre…

Though the first and last speaker is the Soul of Souls (composer Ahn Sook Sun on opening night; Yu Tae-pyung-yang on subsequent nights): a ghostly female voice delivering the prologue and epilogue, introducing and bidding farewell to the doomed city.

Hecuba herself is an incredible presence—not a forlorn Madonna at the Crucifixion but a scrappy grandmother of endless fury, clenching her fists and her eyelids, accompanied by zither and drum; “the chammest ajumma”, as writer Clara Chow commented, but still blazing with an internal strength regardless of her loss of political power.

Channgeuk TROJANWOMEN National Theater of Korea provides 4

Image courtesy of National Theater of Korea

Magnificent, also, the other women who enter. The crazed Cassandra (Yi So-yeon), who appears with a huge fan and a semblance of a bridal gown, accompanied by the flute, laughing as she foretells that they will be avenged on the Greeks as tragedies befall them, though the chorus cannot believe her. Also the flint-hearted Andromache (Kim Ji-sook), who blames Hecuba for not killing her son Paris when the gods warned her that he would bring doom to the kingdom—though she collapses too when she’s told her own infant son, Astyanax, will be killed by the Greeks.

And may I spare a word for the Chorus (Jung Mi-jung, Heo Ae-sun, Na Yoon-young, Seo Jung-kum, Kim Mi Jin, Lee Youn-joo, Min Eun-kyung, Cho Yu-ah)? They aren’t static, but ever moving, spooling and unspooling balls of red yarn, speaking individually as slaves and noblewomen, then dancing in unison.

Their songs were written not by Ms Ahn but by the K-pop composer Jung Jae-il, and Ong Keng Sen had claimed this hybrid of pansori and pop would be what would happen is the tradition was left unprotected and open to market forces, which sounded like a warning. But honestly, they sounded bomb—a rousing orchestral wave of music accompanying these anguished voices, like an epic film score.

But what about the men? Menelaus (Choi Ho-sung) is this amazing bruiser, built like a wrestler with a Kim Jung-il/Donald Trump-ish scowl, bloodstains on his hands. Yet Talthybios (Lee Kwang-Bok) is in a way more despicable—he’s the original everyman of the play, the Greek soldier who acts as messenger and complains of having to do the dirty work of the war, breaking the news to the women and murdering Astyanax with his own bare hands, with just the decency to return the corpse for a proper burial.

ForMedia Composer TROJANWOMENNational Theater of Korea 12

Image courtesy of National Theater of Korea

Greek audiences would have identified with him the most, and I think we’re being called to as well: he walks up to stage from the stalls, sometimes delivering his lines from the audience (sorry circle seats!).

But does he refuse the inhumane orders of his masters? Nope! And how often do we? As Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Then there’s Helen (Kim Jun-soo)… ah, s/he’s interesting. S/he enters very late in the story, after Menelaus, with all the other women baying for her blood in revenge. And it’s fascinating how androgynous s/he appears: played by a man but canonically a woman, with short but curled hair and a simple grey shift that could just as easily be a tunic or a dress. Barefoot: both vulnerable and sexual.

His/her arias, performed stirringly with Jae-il on piano (credited as Paris), are protests that s/he was moved by Aphrodite to misbehaviour, and hence innocent of blame. And they are utterly compelling: probably the climax of the whole show. Menelaus kneels before him/her, the monster conquered by beauty…

And then Hecuba and the Chorus, whom we’ve been rooting for all this time, step up and cry out for her to be killed once again. And we’re put in a quandary: is our love for beauty and queer love in this instance tantamount to support for oppression? Or are the oppressed women simply lashing out at the most convenient target? Shades of how so many freedom fighters, from Cuba to Palestine, choose to persecute gay men as traitors to their struggle…

Oh, and since Keng Sen talked about how this was done in brilliant light, can we talk about how dramatic light designer Scott Zielinski’s effects are throughout this production? We run the gamut from darkness to full house lights at several moments in the show, folding the audience into the action.

Also, the videos by Austin Switser, beginning with the moving waters around Troy, then the raging fires of the sun for Cassandra (betrothed to Apollo; mistaken at first for a woman in flames), clouds for Andromache, rocky crags for Menelaus, and then finally the falling snow of the coming winter…

ForMedia composerPansori TROJANWOMEN National Theater of Korea19

Image courtesy of National Theater of Korea

As the women move out from under the set of distorted pillars, designed by Myung Hee Cho, mounting it as the roof becomes the pier for the Greek ships. Hecuba raising her arms to the sky as the Soul of Souls appears for one last farewell…

(And a farewell is what this show is, isn’t it? The last work in Keng Sen’s tenure as Festival Director, with everyone fearful that Gaurav Kripalani will in turn usher in an age of conservatism. )

There’s a strange paradox to productions like Trojan Women, which are both transient and immortal. Transient because a performance is, by definition, here one evening, gone the next, and never quite the same twice, with future revivals contingent on the whims of other festival programmers. Immortal because the archive remains: the video, the reviews, and the notation for the changgeuk, which I do hope will become a canonical text, as KS envisioned. (And if not, perhaps it’ll inspire other compositions in the future. Koreans should decide this for themselves.)

In the same way, SIFA isn’t going to vanish because KS is gone — as someone told me, what he’s done is show us what a Singaporean arts festival is capable of. Gaurav and his successors can draw on that context. As KS said in his speech at Lizard on the Wall, we have to be looking at the future of the festival in fifty years, when he and other leading artists here are dead and buried. How can what has happened here inspire the future?

And I realise that in both instances, using the term “inspire”, I’ve been thinking in narrowly national terms—how the National Theatre of Korea’s work will affect the practice of Korean artists; how KS will influence Singaporean art. But that’s silly: what happens here changes things elsewhere and vice versa.

Basically, if SIFAs of the future don’t want to commission ambitious, risky, epic works of art, then other festivals and programmers will in other cities.

Why be territorial about it? Let great art flourish where it may. 

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  • 2017