Hamlet directed by Yang Jung-Ung for Yohangza Company, Peacock Theatre, London, 12 July 2014.
Reviewed by Adele Lee
‘In equal scale weighing delight and dole’ (1.2.13), Yang Jung-Ung’s speedy, shamanistic Hamlet combines elements of farce with melodrama, and popular culture with traditional folklore and ancient gut rituals. Similar to the director’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which enjoyed success at the Globe to Globe festival two years ago, it is a pared-down version (the Fortinbras subplot was omitted, for instance) that emphasises the physical aspects of performance and is drawn to moments of heightened drama. And while the set resembled a Buddhist Zen garden carpeted with rice instead of gravel, this was no bookish, solitary Hamlet prone to moments of deep contemplation. Yang, it seems, takes his cue from Polonius’ meta-theatrical reflection that a play shouldn’t be too long (2.2.478), thus his Hamlet (performed by the floppy-haired Jeon Jung-Yong) did not procrastinate. Nor did his Hamlet share many intimacies with the audience, rarely affording anyone the opportunity to get inside his psyche. Perhaps given the rhetorical nature of the soliloquies, that never allow us to pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, this didn’t really matter; at least, their absence did not deter too much from our understanding of the protagonist’s already well-known predicament.
Shortly after he first entered the stage, dressed in black and delivering the (obligatory) ‘To be or not to be’ speech, Hamlet cast off his nightly colour and donned a white tracksuit: white, incidentally, is the traditional colour of mourning in Korea. The sporty outfit signalled a rather adolescent rejection of courtly life as well as the distinctively populist and tongue-in-cheek nature of ‘Korean Shakespeare’: Hamlet was recently reborn as a factory worker in Ki Kuk-Seo’s politically-risqué Hamlet 6. The non-aristocratic nature of Yang’s Hamlet also served to highlight the prince’s own awareness that little separates a beggar from a king, and it was fitting that the hundreds of royal portraits that adorned the background should look like a comic strip (a genre that appeals to the director). Clearly, too, being under the constant glare of his ancestors accentuated Hamlet – ‘the observed of all observers’ (3.1.148) – sense of familial duty, and the extent to which the dead were an ever-looming presence in this production.
According to shamanistic thinking, the souls of the deceased do not always depart the human world; it is the responsibility of shamans, who enter trance-like states, to placate and cooperate with these restless spirits (pathogens) for the benefit of society. In Yohangza Company’s Hamlet, the old king was brought back to life through the ritual of jinogi-gut, Ophelia’s spirit was raised out of water through a sumang-gut, and Hamlet’s spirit was escorted to the underworld through a sanjinogi-gut. These three rituals provided the kind of spectacle that Asian theatre is often expected to offer, yet they also forged parallels between shamanism and Shakespeare’s engagement with a variety of early modern superstitions. Moreover, despite how mystical the gut practice appeared, the acting style remained surprisingly naturalistic and it was only really during ‘The Mousetrap’, staged wonderfully as a traditional mask dance (Talchum), that the production broke away from contemporary, Western realism.
Far from being just a stylistic ploy, the mask dance, which historically appealed to Korean audiences by ridiculing the powerful and decadent, effectively captured the puppet-like quality of the ‘original’ play-within-a-play and brought into sharp relief the shallowness of those that surround Hamlet. In this production Guildenstern (Lee Ki-Jung) and Rosencrantz (Sung Kyu-Chan), despite their clowning, are particularly sinister figures and, like Claudius, dressed as gangsters (Kkangpae); Gertrude (Kim Eun-Hee) was an ice queen and traumatised her son in the closet scene by attempting to kiss him (a daring moment as East Asian directors usually reject Freudian interpretations of Hamlet); Ophelia (Nam Seung-Hae) was particularly vacuous, albeit pitiful, and shared no obvious chemistry with Hamlet; and even Horatio (Kim Sang-Bo), Hamlet’s only friend, was portrayed as a drunken fool in a trench coat. It was only Laertes (Sung Kyu-Chan) who Hamlet seemed to genuinely respect and bond with and their duel, fought with elegant fans instead of swords, seemed more like a courtship than a battle, thereby raising questions about both men’s sexuality. In the final, highly-moving scene Hamlet appeared relieved to die and while ‘flights of angels’ didn’t quite ‘sing [him] to [his] rest’ (5.2.303), a group of chanting mu (shamans) washed away his impurities and sent him on a peaceful voyage to the world of the dead. No doubt he’ll be reincarnated soon by an East Asian theatre troupe.