Visitors to Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square, and anyone with a cursory acquaintance with Korean history, will know of the existence of King Sejong. His statue dominates the broad avenue that leads southwards from Gwanghwamun itself, gazing into the distance towards the other great hero of Joseon history, Admiral Yi Sun-shin.
Are the life and achievements of a Joseon king a suitable subject for a musical? Absolutely. There are plenty of (on paper at least) less promising subjects for a musical. And as we are well aware, Sejong’s achievements are plenteous.
The musical 1446 (the year in which the creation of Hangul was completed) deals with some of those achievements – not just the creation of Hangul but the results of Sejong’s relentless quest for scientific understanding, for example in documenting Korean weather patterns and developing a Korean calendar.
But without dramatic tension a theatre piece lauding someone’s achievements would be pretty dull fare. And 1446 has plenty of dramatic tension, with Sejong seeing opposition, rivalry and tension at almost every turn: with his elder brother, passed over for the throne because of his dissolute ways; with his father, who maintained a critical presence as a back seat driver even after abdicating in favour of Sejong (we see a similar tension portrayed in the movie The Throne, in which Crown Prince Sado is given “practice” at ruling though in reality he is overruled by his father King Yeongjo at every point); with factions loyal to the deposed Goryeo dynasty – represented here by a noble called Jeon Hae-un – who seek to destabilize Sejong in the hope of restoring the former bloodline; and conservative ministers who see any innovation as dangerous: for example Sejong’s promotion of scholars based on their ability rather than their family background was a threat to the aristocratic order, while his initiatives to invent Hangul or to conduct independent astronomical research (with the aim of establishing a Joseon-specific calendar) showed disrespect to the Chinese emperor.
There was a lot of history packed into this musical (with a running time of slightly under two hours). At times it felt a tiny bit rushed: for example, the 1436 invasion and subsequent expulsion of the Jurchen tribes lasted about 30 seconds; and the destruction of the armillary sphere by the scholar who invented it was sudden and not fully explained. But in general we were led through the history with some deftness, a narrator filling in the details so that we knew what was happening.
The text of the musical made one hunger to have the sillok from Sejong’s reign translated into English, as Taejo’s has. Clearly not every twist and turn of a musical’s plot is based on historical evidence (for example, I doubt that Sejong, in instructing his geographers to draw up a detailed map of his kingdom, would have told them to make sure to include Dokdo, as he does in this musical) but there is enough plausible and interesting historical detail in the storyline to make one want to read the history in a more systematic way. Which is possibly what this musical is intended to do; and also to visit his tomb, which is located in the Yeoju area – which is why the city administration of Yeoju supported the musical financially.
The London staging – in an English translation – was a simple concert performance, accompanied solely by piano and cello, in the intimate setting of the Studio space of The Other Palace in Victoria, which is more used to hosting jazz performances than historical epics. But the setting was very suitable for the occasion: the audience was close to the performers, enabling the story to be communicated with ease. As a theatrical experience it was preferable to a fully staged performance in a large venue.
The cast did well: assembled only a week before the gig, they spent six days rehearsing for this one-off performance. And within the confines of the very small stage they managed to get some acting into the performance as well. There was only one moment when it seemed that the cast heaved a sigh of relief: the alphabet song celebrating the logic of hangul was a bit of a tongue-twister.
This was altogether an unexpectedly enjoyable experience: regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a huge fan of musicals, but this one kept me entertained for its full duration. Congratulations to the cast and organisers. Will a musical featuring Yi Sun-shin be next?
1446 was performed at The Other Palace, London, on 17 February 2018.
Cast: Kevin Shen (King Sejong) | Julie Yammanee (Queen Soheon) | Connor Hughes (Grand Prince Yangnyeong / Astronomer Jang) | Phil Adele (Jeon Hae-un / ensemble) | Jacob Chapman (King Taejong / ensemble) | Emilie du Leslay, Sinead Wall, Sunny Yeo, Joshua Leclair (ensemble)
Production credits: Daniel Jarvis (music director) | Tania Azevedo (director) | Layla Se-eun Kim (assistant director) Erenie Mavrommatis (project manager) | Nikki Racklin (English lyricist) | Ginny Ji-eun Kim (co-producer / general manager) | Music: Eun-young Kim | Book: Sun-mi Kim | Presented by the City of Yeoju | Production: Seung-won Han / HJ Culture.