One, two, three… many Hamlets (Taroo’s Pansori Hamlet Project, part1)

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

Fittingly, with Shakespeare’s 450th birthday coming up, The Pansori Hamlet Project (판소리 햄릿 프로젝트) by gugak ensemble Taroo (국악뮤지컬 집단 타루, also on Facebook) reached a climax this spring with a performance at the Guro Arts Valley (구로 아트밸리 예술극장). It was the culmination of more than one year of experiments and practice. In a three-part series of posts, I will track the development of this piece, one of the most interesting theatrical experiments that I’ve seen in recent times.

It all started in a basement rehearsal room at Doosan Art Center (두산아트센터) in late 2012. This first attempt of staging Hamlet in pansori-style was part of the Doosan Art Lab (두산아트랩). Consequently, the stage resembles a workshop: Small props and several music instruments are standing around and there are six hangers with clothes, each with a sign attached: Hamlet, his lover, his father, his mother, his uncle etc.

Before the performance: The workshop stage of the Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

Before the performance: The workshop stage of the Pansori Hamlet Project

The six performers include Taroo members trained in pansori as well as actors of the ensemble 플레이위드 (“Play with”). That team had an indie-hit in Daehangno with the multimedial-documentary two-man show India Blog (인디아블로그) in 2011 (see their blog and a NCTV newsclip for some impressions). All performers are dressed in neutral black jeans and hood-T-shirts and, while playing “themselves” throughout the performance, will from time to time put on the prepared costumes to temporarily take the respective role.

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

© Taroo

First, in just about five minutes, the pansori singers briefly retell and pantomime the main plot of Hamlet, reduced to its basic episodes. Then a young man enters. He is slender, tall, and dressed in old-fashioned clothes, just who one would expect as Prince Hamlet in a conventional, slightly uninspired performance. He is indeed the protagonist of this play and the performers start to ask him all kinds of questions—Were you afraid of the ghost? Why didn’t you act earlier? How do you feel about your mother? etc.—which “Hamlet” can’t answer.

In the following, the performers stage key scenes from the play: the wedding, the reunion with the ghost of his father, mad-talk with Ophelia, the mouse-trap play, the death of Polonius, the graveyard , the final duel. A short aniri (아니리, narration), accompanied on the buk (북, drum) introduces each scene pansori-style. Then the actors, switching their respective roles constantly, enact the scene. At one point or another the “Hamlet”-character begins to sing pansori and joins the play. It is obvious that he is one of the actors and not trained in pansori. Afterwards, the other performers (now as “themselves”) ask him again about his opinion and the reasons for his actions in the particular scene.

Two scenes in particular stand out:

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

© Taroo

An early moment between “Hamlet” and pansori singer Song Bora (송보라) as “Ophelia”: While she is singing a song that could come from a musical, the amateur sorikkun calmly sings the “Love Song” (사랑가) from Chunhyang-ga (춘향가)—a weird, beautiful, and exciting duet of two different voices. Then she joins him and in the end they embrace each other.

In the infamous graveyard scene, two performers (as “Hamlet” and “Laertes”) run away to an adjacent room to fight. Thanks to a semi-transparent wall and the lighting in the room behind, their struggle is visible. At the same time it is projected as a video on the back of the stage, a distanced double-pantomime that, in its abruptness and violence, contrasts with the calmer acting-storytelling parts of the piece.

In these and other cases, various means of pansori, classical experimental theatre, and more popular performing arts are used to create a new interpretation of Hamlet.

Curtain Call: Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

© Taroo

The charm of the Pansori Hamlet Project is the personal approach to the classic, including discussions about its relevance today, and the do-it-yourself-aesthetic that creates a spontaneous mood that in a way combines traditionally-relaxed gugak improvisation and contemporary art that is close to everyday life.

This was the first stage of the Pansori Hamlet Project. Back then, I also wrote a post in Korean for the Jeonju Sori Festival-blog. Just ignore the picture, it has nothing to do with the Hamlet Project.

— 13 Dec. 2012 (木)

  • 국악뮤지컬집단 타루 & 플레이위드, <판소리 햄릿 프로젝트> (2012 두산아트랩9), 두산아트센터, A연습실 (지하 B1), 2012년 12월 13일 (목), 오후 4시~5시10분, 무료입장.
  • Gugak Musical Collective Taroo & Play With, Pansori Hamlet Project (2012 Doosan Art Lab 9), Doosan Art Center, Rehearsal Room A (basement B1), 2012-12-13 (Thu.), 4–5.10 pm, free entrance.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Pansori, Performance Report and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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