I have seen a lot of theatre in my life. I don’t know the exact number of shows I’ve seen. But it’s easily in the four figures by now. And had you asked me a month ago what was the best show I’ve ever seen, I don’t think I would have been able to provide you with an answer. But now? That’s easy. The Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea. It’s unequivocally the best thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre. Ever. Full stop.
I feel like I could go on forever about this show. It is a pansori adaptation of The Trojan Women by Euripides, meaning it’s a blend of traditional Korean storytelling and ancient Greek tragedy. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it does. Brilliantly. Especially considering that The Trojan Women is a play about the aftermath of a war, and the bleak fate that awaits the survivors of the losing side. Particularly the women. If you know anything about the history of Korea over the past 100 years or so, you’ll know the parallels that this production is making.
Also, if you don’t know what pansori is, don’t worry. I didn’t either prior to seeing this show. And now that I’ve seen it, I honestly don’t know how to describe it. The closest I’ve come is that it’s a cross between opera and K-pop, but that doesn’t even come close to properly describing it. All I can say is that the music and singing in The Trojan Women were both beyond incredible; so powerful that I broke out in goosebumps at least a dozen times over the course of the show.
But it wasn’t just the performances that made the show so brilliant. Every single aspect of it was incredible. The set, the costumes, the lights. All incredible. The sound mix was easily the best I’ve ever heard in a theatre. And the projections somehow managed the amazing feat of integrating seamlessly with the action in a way that made them feel necessary.
That being said, the performances were definitely the highlight of the show. There wasn’t a weak link among the actors; not the eight piece chorus or the soloists. Every single one of them was outstanding, but there was one in particular that I will remember forever. It was late in the show, and Menelaus was onstage demanding that his wife, Helen, be brought to him. After 10 years of war, he’s ready to reclaim is bride. The Trojans, for their part, are ready to see her punished for the ruin she has brought down upon them. The upstage door that served as the entrance for all of the principle characters opened, and out glided Helen. Played by a man.
A part of me hates that in a production filled with extraordinary performances by women, I’m singling out a performance by a man. But I can’t stop thinking about it. For one, having Helen played by a man completely upended all of the gender dynamics of the scene and instantly queered it. It’s a fascinating choice for a country that is famously not fully on board with queer visibility and representation.
This particular performance also managed to be completely riveting based solely on its delicacy. While all of the other performances were full of rage and power, Helen’s solo was soft and willowy. The actor glided around the stage in a way I’ve never seen anyone else move, and his voice was painfully beautiful and subtly understated compared to the belting operatics of his co-stars. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him; not because he forcefully commanded it, but because you were afraid he would dissipate like a cloud if you looked away for even a second. It was quite simply one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen. In a production filled with extraordinary performances all around.
If this production of The Trojan Women ever tours to your city, I can’t recommend it enough. I know I’ve already said this a lot, but it was the best thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre. And honestly? I can’t even image what could possibly beat it in the future. Something beyond extraordinary, that’s for sure. In the meantime, I’ll watch this highlight reel on repeat and remember the feeling I had in that theatre, knowing I was watching something truly special.
Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!