Rather a Fistful of FROGS than some BIRDS in the CLOUDS

On my way to the movies, I dropped by at Bandis & Lunis in Jongno to finally get the August-issue of the Korean Theatre Review (한국연극, see the journal’s Facebook page). Besides some nice reviews, the journal features also an interesting interview with actress Kim So-hee (김소희), the main cast in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire (욕망이라는 이름의 전차) that I saw just a few days ago at the Myeongdong Theatre (명동예술극장).

Advertisement by National Theater Company of Korea, in Korean Theatre Review 08/2013

Advertisement by National Theater Company of Korea,
in Korean Theatre Review 08/2013

And there is this beautiful advertisement for three upcoming productions of the National Theater Company of Korea. Three comedies by Aristophanes, by three different directors who in most cases also adapted the plays.

© National Theatre Company of Korea

First, there is The Frogs (개구리, Βάτραχοι/Batrakhoi), a piece about art and its value standards. This play brings back some nice memories of a voyage to Italy. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I spent in springbreak to Sorrento (it must have been one of my last “family vacations”). After some days I had run out of reading material, but then I found an old, bleached out Reclam-edition (the little yellow paper backs with classic literature) of Die Frösche, bought it for a few thousand Lira and read it the same night.

The setting Mediterranean sun was just the right backdrop for a trip into Hades. Dionysus, the protagonist of the piece, embarks on this voyage together with his servant Xanthias. He wants to bring back the recently deceased dramatist Euripides (480–406 BC) but ends favoring the classic Aeschylus. The piece was performed in 405 BC, the year after Euripides’ death—Aeschylus had died almost 50 years earlier.

Having arrived in the underworld, Dionysus organises a contest between the two playwrights that turns into a witty duel between idealism and realism in drama. Doesn’t sound like material for comedy? Well, I had a great time reading, not least thanks to the “Brekekekex, koax, koax!” uttered by the chorus of frogs.

I never saw The Frogs in performance. So this is a great chance to find out how “Koax, koax” sounds in Korean!

© National Theater Company of Korea

Second, there is The Clouds (구름, Νεφέλαι/Nephelai), the piece that supposedly contributed to the image that over twenty years later brought Socrates the cup of hemlock. What is clear is that the philosopher is not cast in the best light, as the head of the “Thoughtery”, a school for “sophistication”. However, in her book Postmodern Platos (Chicago UP, 1996), Catherine Heldt Zuckert argues:

What we see in The Clouds might be a caricature of a “pre-Socratic” Socrates; the philosopher we encounter in [the works of] Xenophon and Plato may be a man who took Aristophanes’ criticism—or even friendly warning—to heart.” (p. 135)

I haven’t see this play on stage, neither, but I read it some years after the trip to Italy that spawned my interest in ancient Greek drama. But I can’t really remember very much about it… In any case, the clouds are talking here, too.

© National Theater Company of Korea

Third, there is The Birds (새, Ὄρνιθες/Ornithes), which I saw live on stage before I first read it. I was in high school, when I went to see a production of The Birds at another school. I don’t remember the place nor the exact time, but what I do remember are the colourful costumes of the various birds and the three gods that appear in the play.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember how the gods spoke, though. Some time later, I would get more into that. In the second year of university, I had a class about Greek comedy. There, I tackled the “dialectics of dialect” in a term paper on the various ways Aristophanes uses foreign languages and dialect in his plays ([German] title: “Do you speak Greek?”).

My paper also covered how the occurences of foreign languages and dialects from ancient Greece (ranging from “Barbarian” gibberish to “laconian” dialect, the language of Sparta) could be translated. In the conclusion, I drew a line to modern atrocities like the (animated) alien villains in Star Wars: Episode 1 (more specifically: Neimoidians, a species that has “a reputation for greed and cowardice”, according to Wookieepedia) who talk with an “Asian” accent in the original—and with a French one in the German dubbing. You can make whatever you want of that… (And this is not even the worst racial stereotype in the movie.)

Aristophanes, long time no see! I’m excited for some Greek comedy after quite a while of abstinence—for the first time in Korea, too. So far, I’ve only seen a few tragedies here, including a changgeuk version of Medea (see my review in the National Theater’s journal 미르, 07/2013, p. 49 ) and Oedipus Rex by Han Tae-suk (review upcoming). It will be interesting to see how the laughs from Athens will translate to Seoul.

Also, Nam In Woo (남인우, see her Twitter-feed), the director of Lee Jaram’s Brecht-inspired p’ansori pieces Sacheon-ga (사천가) and Ukchuk-ga (억척가), will stage The Clouds. Nam has a background in theatre, but I haven’t seen any of her other works. Thus I’m especially looking forward to see if her involvement with pansori is a recurring feature…

I’ll make sure two see all three pieces. The package price for the whole set is 45,000 won—quite a bargain, I think!

Update (6 Sept. 2013): When I called today, I found out that the ticket packages are already sold out. Whoever has kept an old ticket from a public theatre (e.g. National Theater, National Gugak Center, National Theatre Company, HANPAC etc., from 2012 or later) can get 20% off when ordering tickets in advance, though, with the “Culture Relay Ticket” program. I paid the whole 30,000 Won at the box office, but it was well worth it…

The performance dates are as follows:

  • The Frogs: Sept. 3 – 15 (details)
  • The Clouds: Sept. 24 – Oct. 5 (details)
  • The Birds: Sept. 22 – Nov. 3 (details)

PS: You can read English translations of Aristophanes’ collected comedies (eleven in total) online at MIT (Errata: Strangely, Lysistrata is missing here…) and download an ebook-edition in two volumes at Project Gutenberg (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2). For some impressions from the rehearsals of the plays see the blog of the National Theater Company (The FrogsThe Clouds, The Birds).

– 23 Aug. 2013 (金)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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