Edinburgh International Festival 2023 Theatre Review: Trojan Women (Festival Theatre) ★★★★

Dramatically performed by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, and directed by Ong Keng Sen, this epic production of Trojan Women blends the classical with the modern.

Trojan Women. Photo Credit: Jess Shurte.

Adapted after Euripides by Bae Sam-sik, the eight-strong chorus remains central to this production. Working with red balls of wool that are reminiscent of the Fates’ power over mortal lives, the women are ever-present as the events of the play unfold.

Drawing on Pansori – a traditional singing style dating back to the 17th century, where a solo storyteller sings all of the parts accompanied by only one drummer – Keng Sen has stripped back the layers of the more modern Chaggeuk musical style. Accompanying each central character with one primary instrument, this matches beautifully with the style of Euripedes’ soliloquies.

The power of Yu Tae-pyung-yang’s Ghost at the opening of the show is enough to send chills down the spine. His haunting voice – operatic with empassioned melisma – rings out, as he picks through the women who have been left on the stage like pieces of meat on the bone.

Kim Kum-mi in Trojan Women. Photo Credit: Jess Shurte.

Troy has been defeated, and its queen, Hecuba, mourns the loss of both her country and her kin. Superbly played by Kim Kum-mi, who wrings out all of her complexity, power and pain, the musical style often sounds like weeping, perfectly expressing her agony. Hecuba is accompanied by a komungo – an instrument that normally represents patriarchy. These well-placed contradictions provide an added tension and undercurrent to the work, which highlights the role of women “as spoils of war”.

The use of projections is impactful, but not always entirely successful. Initially they seem to cycle through the elements, and with the Trojans wearing only white – the colour of mourning – the costumes become part of the image. Where this is very effective, however, is the appearance of Cassandra. As the doomed Prophetess of Apollo, Yi So-yeon is bathed in the fire that represents the sun God, while her expert vocals and skillful performance command our attention.

Yi So-yeon in Trojan Women. Photo Credit: Jess Shurte.

The choice to have Helen of Troy played by a male performer, Kim Jun-soo, is an interesting one, and his portrayal is subtle and nuanced. Reinforcing her status as “the outsider”, caught between two worlds but part of neither, Helen is the only woman to survive the war with her status intact.

Trojan Women is an overtly political play, and that punch was somewhat missing from this production. The treatment of women, and of classism, however was not. Lines such as “Suicides are not acceptable, your bodies are no longer your own”, hammer home the reality for women who are left as trophies when the dust settles. The final image, of Kum-mi atop the set, is absolutely breathtaking, bringing this powerful production to a fitting close. As Hecuba says, “There is always war somewhere”, and so Trojan Women, and this version, remains keenly relevant.

By Deborah Klayman

Trojan Women plays the Festival Theatre until 11th August 2023.

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