An adaptation of a Greek play more than 2400 years old interpreted through the medium of an early 20th century Korean performing practice does not immediately sound a promising theatrical experience, except perhaps to the handful of people who appreciate both Euripides’s take on Homer and Changgeuk’s adaptation of Pansori. Nevertheless, the Purcell Room had a full house for a 5pm Sunday performance. As if that was not remarkable enough in its own right, after two hours of unrelenting, high-intensity han, the audience gave the performance a well-deserved standing ovation. How did that happen?
I find it hard to explain, but I was on my feet too, and my hands were hurting by the end of it.
The piece started with the Trojan Women themelves, both low-born and high, sitting on stage in silence with their needlework, waiting for the action to start (and for the audience to assemble). Then, to launch the action, a commentator, a Wandering Spirit comes on stage to set the scene (replacing Euripides’s dialogue between the gods Poseidon and Athene), before the Women themselves start telling the story.
The music and voices combined to tell a tale of woe, and this tragic tone persists through most of the two-hour piece: a consistent lamentation on the fate of women in peace and in war, with a more or less steady tempo and mode to the music (though occasionally the rhythm quickened). What made the drama riveting was the unveiling of the story as we learn of the impending fates of the various Trojan princesses who are now to be divided up between the conquering princes as spoils of war: Hector’s wife, destined to be concubine to the son of her husband’s killer; Cassandra, blessed with the gift of prophesy and consecrated in chastity to the god Apollo, will serve in King Agamemnon’s bed, her insights fated never to be believed; Queen Hecuba will serve as housekeeper to wily Odysseus, whose devious stratagems brought about Troy’s downfall.
And in the midst of it all is Helen the vilified, Helen the beautiful, whose elopement from Sparta to Troy with the handsome Trojan prince Paris started off the whole thing, 10 years previously. Hated by the Trojans for bringing about their downfall, hated by her husband king Menelaus for her infidelity in sneaking off with Paris like a common tart.
We are told Helen will shortly be making an appearance, and we are told the central question that the scene will address: will Helen’s staggering beauty – along with her explanation of her actions – cause her husband to forgive her? This scene is electrifying not only for its intense drama but also for two surprises that shift the piece to a completely different place. Firstly, the beautiful Helen is played by a fabulous-looking male actor, Kim Jun-soo; and secondly the music changes from the slightly austere, formal 19th century Korean folk-opera music on traditional instruments to 21st century music for coruscating shimmering keyboard, composed by Jung Jae-il in his trademark style that made his Bari, Abandoned my disk of 2014.
Helen’s climactic scene finishes, and we turn from the only Greek woman in the play, accompanied by Jung’s other-worldly music, to follow again the fates of the Trojan woman, both royal and humble. And the music returns to the traditional Korean music style (though composed by Pansori legend Ahn Sook-sun).
Even without the scene with Helen, this was compelling viewing, with music and story-telling that gripped the attention, and it raises a question: I have been told in the past by successive directors of the KCC that London is not yet ready for a full-length Pansori performance. The enthusiastic response by this audience suggests that may no longer be the case (if indeed it ever was). We will find out later this year, when Ahn Sook-sun comes to the South Bank as part of K-music 2018. In the meanwhile, this Trojan Women is, as expected, the event of the year so far.
Selected credits: Conceived and directed by Ong Keng Sen | Newly Written for Changgeuk by Bae Bam-sik | Pansori composed by Ahn Sook-sun | Music composed and directed by Jung Jae-il.