/National Theatre of Korea: Trojan Women (2018)

National Theatre of Korea: Trojan Women (2018)

Written by Thomas Joy

Troy may be defeated, but never forgotten – and its women endure as survivors amid the aftermath of a ten-year war with the Greeks.

Ong Keng Sen’s epic paints the parallels between the trauma and wrath faced by the Trojan Women and the pain Korean women have lived through across decades of war and division. Through the waves of the pansori music, the women make this story their own, celebrating the importance of female solidarity in the face of adversity through music and movement.

I find this is a tricky show to review. Since leaving the auditorium, I’ve been trying to reconcile myself with very polarising aspects of this production.

Photo courtesy of National Theatre of Korea

On the first hand, is the cast. The members of the company gave some of the most breathtaking live performances I’ve ever seen, the sheer power of their voices and raw emotion cast a spell over the audience that left us, I’m sure, totally transfixed. Kim Kum-mi in her performance as Hecuba was an absolute highlight of the performance, delivering the most intensely powerful vocals, layered with anguish, despair, and heartbreak, making her a truly world-class performer. This production is at its strongest when she is accompanied by the female chorus in movement and song, along with the (mostly) live musical accompaniment; this production is filled with numbers that’ll make your hair stand on end, with its sheer force, and beautiful melodies and harmonies.

However, a lot of this production, perhaps 70% or so, is formed of the traditional Korean style of storytelling called pansori. Pansori is usually a solo vocalist with a drummer or minimal instrumentation delivering the story through, what in western classical music, we would consider to be recitative. Indeed, this production has two credited composers, Ahn Sook-sun as the pansori composer, and Jung Jae-il as the production’s composer and musical director. Both must be congratulated for their synergy as artists, and for producing a fantastic new score. To hear traditional, authentic, Korean music performed by such accomplished musicians in one of London’s premier venues is a victory for diverse programming!

Photo courtesy of National Theatre of Korea

There is a question, perhaps, as to whether or not two uninterrupted hours of complex music in an unfamiliar style is too much for a western audience without an interval. There seemed to be a natural break in the drama before the entrance of Helen (played by Kim Jung-soo) which would have suited a short interval, but as this is a production that defies the convention of western theatre, perhaps an interval would have been a tad gratuitous.

For me, there were parts of this production that didn’t work, which, whilst they didn’t detract from the strength of the performances, did weaken the impact of the production as a whole. Of course, the whole point of Greek drama is that the action takes place off-stage, but the near total absence of action presented on stage meant that the pace of the performance felt very slow. Bae Sam-sik‘s libretto was well written in places, paying great homage to the Euripides’ original, focussing on the impact of war after the battle, but the speed at which very few actual events unfolded over the course of two hours, meant that the large and powerful group performances provided a well needed distraction from, what is essentially, a series of scenes consisting of anguish and torment.

Another issue was with the numbers performed by Helen, who alongside being played by a man, for no apparent reason beyond Ong Keng Sen’s desire to ‘gender bend’ his productions, was also the musical accompaniment of the number which departed from the beautiful Korean instrumentation to, what appeared to be, a pre-recorded piano track. The piece is also touted as a “queer opera”, and whilst it might have gender-swapped characters and strong female leads, I wouldn’t label it as “queer opera” any time soon.

The company at curtain call, 2nd June 2018, Queen Elizabeth Hall

And that is why I’m so conflicted. It was almost like watching a performance of Avant-Garde music, for example, Meredith Monk, where the power and intention of the performance is delivered by a means that isn’t meant to be comfortable for the audience.

Music aside, this production is a visual feast, with a stunning minimalistic set courtesy of Myung Hee Cho intertwined with imaginative video design by Austin Switser, whose work alongside Scott Zielinski‘s lighting design, delivered an atmospheric and impactful set. Producing theatre in a concert hall is never easy, but the team at Queen Elizabeth Hall have done it brilliantly.

The cast have done superbly, LIFT Festival should be delighted at opening their 2018 season with such a phenomenal set of performances, and my criticism is purely subjective. There were many on their feet at the end of tonight’s performance, and my rating is indicative, I hope, not of mediocrity, but of a show that has me conflicted.

Trojan Women is part of LIFT Festival 2018. For more information for events at the South Bank Centre and Queen Elizabeth Hall, click here and for information on current shows at LIFT Festival 2018, go here.

(Thomas was provided a press ticket to review the show.)

Thomas Joy is a theatre-lover and musician. Follow him on now Twitter: