Review: Trojan Women

The ancient tale takes on a hauntingly fresh form in One Keng Sen's fusion of Greek tragedy and Korean pansori

international review (edinburgh) | Read in About 2 minutes
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Trojan Women | Image courtesy of the artists
Published 10 Aug 2023

Euripides wrote The Trojan Women in 415BC, but his tale of female oppression and the forgotten casualties of war feels laundry fresh, particularly in this bold remodelling. Celebrated Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen has made a name for himself retelling Western classics through Asian performance traditions and does the same here remixing Greek tragedy with pansori, a style of Korean folk song. 

How to describe pansori? Gravelly springs to mind. The singing is low and rumbly; American blues might be a useful Western comparison. It’s clearly hard on the vocal cords – just ask Ahn Sook-sun, the legendary singer who composed Trojan Women’s pansori orally, and ruptured blood vessels in her throat in the process. The pain is worth it: the music is raw and epic, a paean brimming with anger and anguish, and makes a fine marriage with Euripides’ harrowing tale.

Dark humour flecks the tragedy. Spartan king Menelaus appears on stage with literal blood on his hands, and asks “Why is it hard to live as a great man?”, while poor Helen, the face that caused all the bother, gets a catty tongue lashing from Queen Hecuba – “punish this slut!”, she jeers. Interestingly, Helen is played by male performer Kim Jun-soo, adding a queer dimension that’s in keeping with many a Trojan war text. 

Festival Theatre’s cavernous stage and the elaborate set could have been used more dynamically and the succession of animated projections – gushing water, rising flames, a swirling galaxy – was distracting rather than elucidating. A story this heartwrenching and singing this elemental doesn’t require such bells and whistles.