July 13, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (Yohangza Theatre) @ The Peacock Theatre, London

A raised platform thrust upwards from a bed of fine gravel, while towering tapestries on three sides of the stage depicted ancient Korean men and women in formal postures and brightly coloured clothes. Onto this stage stepped a man in black, reading a Penguin edition of Hamlet, who began speaking words whose cadences, even if the surtitles hadn’t offered a translation, were still recognisable as the opening words of ‘To be or not to be’.

A substrand of this year’s City of London Festival, ‘Seoul in the City’ brought a range of contemporary South Korean artists to London for a series of events including this, a one-off performance of Yohangza Theatre’s Hamlet directed by Jung-ung Yang. Yohangza performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of Globe to Globe in 2012, and this was a welcome return for a company renowned for accessibility and cross-cultural communication. In opening with this explicit juxtaposition of cultural reference points, the company set out its intention of creating something recognisably cognisant with the western performance tradition while identifiably and thoroughly Korean.

At two hours long with no interval, Yohangza’s production rattled at breakneck speed through Hamlet with at least one eye on the spectacular. Hamlet’s opening speech gave way straightaway to a shamanic ritual performed by three women with fans, shakers and streamers who called to and then ventriloquised the voice of Hamlet’s father, the women twisting and crying for vengeance. Upsettingly, the shamans reappeared during Ophelia’s funeral, screaming at Laertes in Ophelia’s words for not having rescued her from the water. Coupled with the figures surrounding the stage in the tapestries, there was a sense of the constant presence of the dead, watching and influencing actions. The ghosts of the fallen drummed to accompany Laertes and Hamlet’s final duel, and as Hamlet’s dead body was propped up by Horatio, the ghosts joined the shamans to sing a requiem for the prince.

Sadly there was no programme to give names of the actors, but Hamlet was finely realised. Following the Ghost’s instructions, he stripped entirely (causing an audible gasp of shock among the audience) and redressed in a white tracksuit, which remained his uniform for the rest of the play. This was a carefully calibrated Hamlet, often serious (and able to sustain wonderfully pregnant silences when allowing lines to hang in the air) but always unpredictable. He attacked Polonius bodily during an early scene, forcing him down into the gravel. He beat away Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, laughed hysterically and inappropriately, and threw Ophelia away from him angrily. The physicality of this production, demanding actors to throw themselves through the gravel and send it flying into the audience, was led by Hamlet throughout, scarring the carefully raked stage and leaving it a fractured mess.

Hamlet was accompanied throughout by Horatio, a brown-coated drunkard and jester who sang with the shamans, performed with the Players, danced with a Hamlet and orchestrated the final musical tribute to his prince. Horatio sat partly within and partly without the play, laughing constantly yet being pulled increasingly into emotional reactions, until by Act 5 he was embedded fully in the play-world. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fulfilled a similar but more distant function, dancing in a synchronised routine with Hamlet on their first arrival but being dismissed in preference for the more independent and ever-present Horatio.

The stripping down of the play involved the removal of all reference to Fortinbras, all appearances of Laertes until after Ophelia’s death, the omission of all minor characters and cutting of scenes that set up, rather than included, action. As such, the pace of the play was extremely fast – Hamlet began almost immediately on his vengeance, and the Players arrived straightaway, acting out in dumbshow Priam’s speech (an interesting choice to retain a Western cultural reference point here, of course). The Mousetrap was, however, an entirely Korean affair. The Players were dressed in white, their faces made up to look like masks, and their performance entirely comic, with other Players providing the voices to which the actors mimed. Amid the cartoonish slapstick (including Rynaldo forgetting where he had put his poison), the focus was on the serious reactions of an increasingly angry King and a Gertrude who slapped her son hard on her departure.

Gertrude’s role seemed reduced here, partly because of the brevity of the Ophelia scenes. Ophelia’s madness manifested in the passing around of coloured streamers and a long outcry which made clear that (at least in her mind) she and Hamlet had slept together. Her death was not reported until her funeral, but the mad scenes served largely to provide the fuel for the newly arrived Laertes, whose passionate performance started high and built higher, roaring and screaming for his vengeance to an extent that it made a mockery of his final repentance. Their battle was fought with fans, leading to a stylised series of ‘hits’ where fans were opened, waved and then lightly tapped on one another to indicate violence. Yet the slashing actions carried out on both Claudius and Polonius continued to suggest the brutality of these particular moments.

Claudius was a thorough villain, cackling and shouting in equal measure, speaking over his quiet and dignified wife. His sequence of prayer was a standout moment for the production, as he screamed his despair to the heavens while kneeling before a shrine. His throwaway treatment of Ophelia was equally telling – following the nunnery scene, in which Ophelia was left sobbing and helpless, his simple response to Polonius was that this was not a question of love.

As the above paragraphs indicate, the production stuck relatively slavishly to Hamlet, abridging rather than rewriting. As such, the surtitles became particularly frustrating. Sometimes they reflected Shakespearean text, sometimes a modern English basic paraphrase, but the distinctions appeared to relate to nothing within the production itself. It is hard to escape the sense that this was a ‘simplified’ text, and I found myself wishing for an interpretative structure that served the complexity of the Korean signifiers better. When the production stepped away from words and took time on its rituals, especially in the conclusion, it became the most thrilling precisely because of its deviation from a programmatic Shakespearean model.

In many ways, this production didn’t entirely see through its own ideas – the gravel became eventually the gravedigger’s pit, but aside from the continued presence of Yorick’s skull little more was made of this; the ghostly voices of the shamans appeared only in scenes that required a Korean corollary for Shakespeare’s supernatural elements, rather than being further embedded – but the colour, energy and passion of the company made for a spectacular and enjoyable take on the play.

A 2010 performance of this production is available to watch online on the Global Shakespeares website: http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/hamlet-yang-jung-ung-2010/ .

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