EIF: Trojan Women

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Scottish Opera’s Ring cycle was not the only treat in Brian McMaster’s 2003 Edinburgh International Festival for those with the stamina for long-form performance.

That year’s programme also included a remarkably comprehensive introduction to the Korean art of pansori, sung story-telling stretching out over hours in which a single vocalist is accompanied by a percussionist on traditional instruments. Audiences for the shows were predictably small, but we select few had an unforgettable experience of what was acknowledged to be an endangered art-form, and a designated “national treasure” in its country of origin.

This flagship production of the Korean strand in the 2023 EIF programme is labelled “Music Theatre” in the printed brochure (although Nicola Benedetti’s first Festival commendably downplays such categorisation), but it might equally be described as “Opera”. It serves no worthwhile purpose to restrict that word to fully-staged productions of a limited list of works in Western culture beyond giving the smaller-minded something to froth about when there isn’t enough of it for them.

Trojan Women is not pansori, but that tradition is an essential ingredient of the magnificent production Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen has fashioned with the help of one of the surviving practitioners of the art, Ahn Sook-sun. She composed – improvised, really, as it was not notated – the music to which much of the text by Bae Sam-sik is set and which the cast have then learned, and was herself a member of that cast when the show first opened.

This work is presented by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, and changgeuk theatre is a larger form, with an ensemble company, sets and choreography and more musicians, which began with the five pansori stories that have come down to us before embracing narratives from other cultures, East and West.

Euripedes’ contemporaneous account of the fall of Troy and the war between Sparta and Greece is the basis of the story here, but the musical material used to tell it is all Korean, traditional and modern, Ahn Sook-sun’s pansori music combined with contemporary K-pop by the composer of the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, Jung Jae-il.

The result is not just operatic in its sound and appearance, most of the dialogue sung by the seven principals or chorus of eight and Cho Myung-hee’s set design, Scott Zielinski’s lighting and Austin Switser’s video projections using the language of current opera staging, but in details of the score, with Wagnerian leitmotiv and characters teamed with individual instruments of the accompanying ensemble.

The female chorus is terrific, their declamatory unison voices sometimes resembling Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of art pop band The B-52s from the Athens in Georgia, and the principal cast, led by Kim Kum-mi as the matriarch Hecuba, is without a weak link. All the characterisation is fascinating, the stylised movement married to naturalistic individual expression. The disbelieved Cassandra (Yi So-yeon) has bouffant hair like Ronnie Spector and a big voice to match, while the casting of male K-pop star Kim Jun-soo as Helen of Troy – possibly more bold in the current fetid climate of personal politics than it should be – is justified entirely by the poise he brings to the role and the piano ballad he has to sing.

The riches of this multi-faceted production are beyond number, as are the parallels with other forms of drama – Hecuba’s emphasis on endurance is Beckettian while her railing at the gods towards the end of the piece is unmistakably Lear-like, but her exchange with Andromache (Kim Mi-jin) could be from a TV soap. Most importantly, however, it is a fully-realised work from elsewhere that speaks to a global audience and to universal experience, which is exactly what the Edinburgh International Festival is all about.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Jess Shurte