Old and New, East and West: Trojan Women at Festival Theatre Edinburgh

Trojan Women at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival © Jess Shurte
Trojan Women at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival. Image © Jess Shurte

Trojan Women

From: 9 Aug 2023

To: 11 Aug 2023

Festival Theatre Edinburgh
13 / 29 Nicolson Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Trojan Women was first written and performed in Athens in 415 BC, at a time when ancient Athens was embroiled in a long, brutal war with Sparta. Since that time the play has been performed and reimagined at different times and in different cultures as a response to conflict.

This latest reimagining comes from legendary Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen, who uses traditional Korean pansori theatre to put a new spin on this Western classic. Pansori has many similarities to traditional Greek theatre: pansori is very stylised, with a live orchestra accompanying the singer on stage, although Ong Keng Sen incorporates the multiple performers of more modern changgeuk theatre, and adds psychedelic, surreal projections and set design to brighten up what would otherwise be a dour tragedy.

Trojan Women takes place in the aftermath of the fall of Troy after 10 years of siege. The women of Troy – led by Queen Hecuba – grieve the dead and imagine what horrible fate is in store for them as enemy captives.

© Jess Shurte
Image © Jess Shurte

The overarching theme in this story is grief and resilience in the face of unbearable loss. The performers of National Changgeuk Company of Korea brought a unique gravitas and operatic scale to a story which is already widely known in the west. The eerie wails and shrieks of pansori singing really sound like lamentations, with some songs enough to make your hair stand on end with how eldritch, strange and beautiful they sound. Coupled with the deliberate movements of the performers the whole production feels like an intensely emotional dream.

Another remarkable aspect of this production is how the women of Troy – Cassandra, Hecuba, Andromache, and the beautiful Helen – are not presented simply as weeping victims. They do cry, but they also rage and plot revenge on the men who will become their masters. Their resilience is thrilling to watch, even when you know they may not succeed.

© Jess Shurte
Image © Jess Shurte

In this production Helen is played by male K-pop star Kim Jun-soo – an inspired piece of casting that balances the character’s status as an outsider with an androgyny that sidesteps the challenge of casting someone as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’ Helen’s songs are also the only ones accompanied by a piano, further highlighting her foreignness.

However the real standout in this production is Kim Kum-mi as Hecuba, who carries the story from beginning to end and whose regal dignity mixed with desperation to survive offers a complex character not often given to female characters over thirty years old.

© Jess Shurte
Image © Jess Shurte

This production of Trojan Women is unlike any other major iteration that has come before and will hopefully be performed for many years to come, as it deftly unites the old and the new, east and west, in a way that only emphasises the pain of war.

With grateful thanks to Heather Simmonds for this review.


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