A bold new show retells the Euripides classic through traditional pansori, K-pop and the story of comfort women in the second world war
In 1991, Ong Keng Sen directed Euripides Trojan Women in a granite quarry in Singapore in the wee hours of the morning. He chose Jean-Paul Sartres 1965 adaptation, a fiery indictment of the Indochina wars, which styled French colonialists as the conquering Greeks and the Vietnamese as bereft Trojans, facing the death and destruction of their people. He cast expatriates to Singapore as the Greeks and Singaporeans as the Trojans.
More than 25 years later, the Singaporean director who made a name for himself reinventing western classics through Asian performance is once more remixing this ancient Greek tragedy about the suffering of women in the aftermath of war. This time, for a show that will be staged at Londons international festival of theatre, he has chosen to use the Korean pansori, the beloved genre of musical storytelling performed by a solo singer and drummer that stretches as far back as the 17th century. The Korean opera form of the changgeuk incorporates the pansori style of singing. Its sound is guttural and husky, making use of the voices lower registers. Think of your natural voice when you wake up in the morning, says the globetrotting Ong, speaking via Skype from Charleston, South Carolina, where he has another show opening at the Spoleto festival this month.
Ongs fascination with the pansori began in 1998, on a trip to South Korea. Usually in Asian cultures, theres a kind of lodestone of cultural heritage and of performance that could take various forms. For example, in Kerala, its kathakali and koodiyattam, the performing arts forms that influence everything else, from ritual to everyday life, from high performance to low performance, he says. In Korea, I felt it was music. There, he attended a performance by pansori superstar Ahn Sook-sun, one of the countrys national living treasures. How wonderful, he thought, to direct a changgeuk one day. But I was in my 30s and it felt quite far away it was more like wishful thinking and I shelved it.
The dream has since come off the shelf: the National Changgeuk Company of Korea approached Ong to collaborate with them in 2013. He quickly decided that he would not stage one of the few extant pansori. There are only five surviving full-length pansori pieces in existence, and seven fragments. I knew there was going to be some kind of controversy if we reinvented one of them because there are only five, and its very precious. Imagine rewriting Handel, for instance, and calling it Handels music.