On the rare occasions that Pansori is performed in London I always get a sense of disappointment. The Pansori Night at the Cadogan Hall as part of K-Music was no exception, though there were mitigating factors.
With a pansori the whole point is the story that unfolds before you. You know where the story is headed, but like a river that is flowing to the sea, you might sometimes be surprised at the detours that are made, the little eddies of detail that delight and divert you on the way to your ultimate destination. And once your destination is finally reached, you get a sense of release and relief as all the loose ends of the narrative are resolved and you get the assurance that everyone (or at least those who deserve it) will live happily ever after.
Imagine the disappointment of a child who is told she is going to be taken to an evening of fairy tales, and then all she gets is a description of how Jack planted some magic beans, or how Goldilocks ate three bowls of porridge only the last of which was to her liking, and you’re getting close to what Pansori night was. We were given a tiny excerpt from three different stories, but taken out of the context of the complete tale they lacked point, no matter how entertainingly they were performed.
Compare and contrast with a performance that took place in Paris two days beforehand: a complete performance of the Song of the Sea Palace – all five hours of it, according to Nam Sangil, though he may have been exaggerating – as one of the early events of L’Année France-Corée. Yes, I know the French are a cultured lot, and they are much more prepared to watch films with subtitles than us barbaric Brits. But are we really so uncivilised in London that we can’t cope with more than 20 minutes of a pansori tale? If we can sit through a Ring cycle (with or without surtitles) or a complete Iliad, why not the tale of Chunhyang? Whatever, I wish I’d known about the Paris performance in advance, because that’s something I would have got on the Eurostar for.
Back to the Cadogan Hall. Each half of the concert started with a dance which may or may not have been your thing. For me, as you might expect from the quiet rant above, I’d rather the time had been devoted to pansori instead. No complaints, of course, as to the quality of Choi Jisun’s choreography and performance.
Then to the main event. We had an episode from the Song of the Sea Palace (Sugungga), performed straight with just singer Nam Sangil and drummer Jun Kyeyoul; a brief passage from another pansori in which Park Aeri was joined by her body-popping husband Hyunjoon – and this was so entertaining that we could have done with a whole evening of it as they had a very special chemistry together on stage; and a changgeuk-style performance of part of Shimcheongga in which the roles of Shim Cheong and her blind father were allocated to the two singers and the accompaniment was bolstered with an ajaeng played by Bae Reon. This also worked very well and was dramatically satisfying as it was the final resolution where the blind man finally regained his sight.
It was all wonderful stuff. There just wasn’t nearly enough of it.