Imagine Hamlet scripted / co-directed by Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), Ryu Seung-wan (Veteran / Unjust) and Yoon Jong-bin (Nameless Gangster), with dialogue input from Yang Ik-joon (Breathless), and music by Cho Young-wook (Oldboy) and you’re starting to get close what this production is like. The setting is moved from Denmark to an abattoir which has a sideline in body-disposal for the criminal underworld. The scene is set for family rivalries and brutal power struggles. If the body count at the end becomes almost comically high it’s not too out of keeping with the noir tone of the scenario, where the eponymous character is a subdued, suicidal character who is gathering evidence of the family’s nefarious activities (and of who killed his mother).
There’s a lot of story to pack in, and to make the pacing manageable a narrator fills in the gaps in storyline that cannot otherwise be covered by the live action.
Bearing in mind the habit of Korean theatre companies of fully engaging with audience members, the initial set-up of the stage is appropriately intimidating: a row of chairs faces the audience, and the cast of slickly-dressed gangsters, their glamorous molls and scruffy hoodlums (including an albino modeled on the white-haired henchman from Oldboy) take their seats. Fortunately however this is one Korean production where the fourth wall is not pierced, and no-one is dragged on stage.
The play is in Korean with English surtitles – an approach which for me is preferable to that taken in EDP’s Taming of the Shrew, in which the heavily accented English is difficult to understand.
This is theatre that will have you on the edge of your seats, but it is not for Shakespeare purists.