On the ashes of Troy, women of the defeated city await the victor’s sentence. Among them is Hecuba, Queen of Troy (Kim Kum-mi), who embodies this retelling of Euripides’s classical play with a shattering emotional intensity. Grief becomes a second skin to her, a mask she’s condemned to wear. She’s at the center of this tragedy, as the symbol of the fallen royal family, yet already pushed to the periphery as Troy is no more.
The women wear white robes, the Confucian color of mourning, which also recall white hanboks associated with Korean patriotism. Trojan Women was conceived and directed by Singapore-born Ong Keng Sen and performed by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea. While in keeping with the original characters of the Greek play, this production and its Korean cast playfully re-interpret Western tragedy using Korea’s expansive musical culture, demonstrating the cross-cultural resonances of traditional and contemporary storytelling devices.
The show reimagines the Greek myth of the fall of Troy through the eyes of the women who survived it. The Queen will be a slave; Ulysses has claimed her. Her vengeful daughter Cassandra (Yi So-yeon), a virgin devoted to the god Apollo, who unleashes fiery sexual energy in divine sensual trances, already embraces her painful future, accepting her fate. She will be desecrated in bed, but not without setting fire to it, and everyone responsible.
Hecuba embodies Troy’s fading past; her desire to uphold her privileged standing is a desperate attempt to close her eyes, to stay behind with her friendly ghosts. The choir of women representing her memories play with red yarn balls that refer to the East Asian myth of the Red Thread of Fate, an invisible red thread that would commonly tie soulmates and their destinies. Here visible, the pulled thread conveys notions of distended luck, of stretched promises that will inevitably break. It also invokes the belief that mysterious connections unite humans.
In the show’s second part, difficult reunions take place, such as the one between estranged couples Menelaus of Sparta and the ethereal Helen, whose alleged treason caused this 10-year war. Menelaus, a fierce warrior in a gray outfit with blood on his gloves, looks distinctively more brutal than the white-clad Trojans. Helen, the object of constant jealousy and spite, is superbly played by a male performer, Kim Jun-soo. He elevates her grace in sublime, hypnotic ways to the sound of a delicate piano melody. Not quite Greek, not quite Trojan, Helen represents both and neither; her fluid, androgynous beauty belongs to other spheres. We may wonder, is she truly the “bitch” of the story (as multiple characters call her), as these different vantage points collide between human and divine agencies.
Speaking and singing in Korean with English subtitles, the cast leans on the traditional Korean folk storytelling tradition of pansori, which uses minimalist accompaniment such as a drum or a zither to the chanting of a vocalist. In addition to pansori, which frames the entire narration, South Korean composer Jung Jae-il (Parasite, Squid Game) added more modern percussions and synthesizers to emphasize dramatic segments and transitions between scenes.
In Trojan Women, Troy’s woes connect with the plight of Korean comfort women during the Japanese occupation and the suffering that women continue to endure elsewhere, as the military uniforms worn by the Trojans evoke the violence of other armies. The show’s compelling force resides in the commanding, wailing, pained lyrical voices of these women facing the abyss of loss. Their bodies are territories for the Greeks to conquer.
Trojan Women was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) on November 18 and 19.