A Korean Tempest: Sympathy from Mr Vengeance

Those who are familiar with Korean cinema will not need to be told that vengeance is a familiar topic, and indeed forms the theme for Park Chan-wook’s unplanned trilogy of films of which the best known is Oldboy. And probably many an essay has been written in Film Studies classes as to why Korean directors seem particularly attracted to the theme.

A scene from the Tempest

Oh Tae-seok, known as the Korean Shakespeare for his prolific output which has defined the standards for modern Korean theatre, sees the theme of vengeance as something which has grown out of Korea’s modern history. Repression by colonial occupiers and military dictators, and regional and generational divisions, all foster feelings of hatred and even self-loathing which, according to Master Oh, are in urgent need of mending.

Oh Tae-seok’s first Shakespeare adaptation was Romeo and Juliet, which he described as his apology to Korean youth from the older generation for not having resolved the division of the peninsula which occurred after Korea’s liberation from Japan. He comes to the Edinburgh International Festival this weekend with the European premier of his second Shakespeare play: the Tempest, which received its first performance in Seoul in the Autumn of 2010. And his Tempest, which is again addressed towards the youth audience, carries this message of reconciliation.

Prospero's book of magic becomes a magical fan in this adaptation
Prospero's book of magic becomes a magical fan in this adaptation

The central figure, Prospero, has been banished to a deserted island for 12 years and has been plotting revenge on his political enemies which include his own brother. But just when vengeance comes within his power he decides to forgive instead. And it is through the teenage characters in the cast, Miranda and Ferdinand, that reconciliation is brought about. This is the powerful story that inspired Master Oh to select the Tempest as his second Shakespeare play, which was produced at the invitation of the Edinburgh Festival.

Quite apart from the healing message of the story, Oh has used the production to remind his Korean audience – and it’s usually the youth audience that he considers – that Korea has a long history, which extends for centuries before the Japanese occupation, and has a cultural heritage to be proud of. The Shakespeare story is transplanted to 5th century Korea, inspired by a true story from the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, and plenty of traditional music and boisterous folk dancing brings the scenario to life.

Finally, Oh is at pains to bring poetry to his adaptation: the 3-3-4 rhythms of Korean sijo, together with the pansori epic storytelling through song are to be found throughout the production.

His aims are ambitious: to connect with a youth audience through integrating Shakespeare’s work with Korean language and traditional art forms brought up to date. His Romeo got an enthusiastic reception at the Barbican a few years ago, and we will see this weekend whether the Tempest can live up to those high expectations.

Oh Tae-seok’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest runs from 13th to 16th August at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh. There is a masterclass with Master Oh on Sunday 14th August at 5pm.

A scene from the Tempest

2 thoughts on “A Korean Tempest: Sympathy from Mr Vengeance

  1. Very interesting cultural experiment, with an important historical context also. Did the performance at the Edinburgh Festival this year attract a lot of interest? Shouvik.

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