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First things first – what is Trojan Women all about? 

You’ve probably heard of the Trojan war, or at least some of the key elements of it. It’s a classic story of two men, Paris of Troy and Menelaus, king of Sparta, going to war over the woman they both want to be with, Helen of Troy – and who could blame them? She was incredibly beautiful, so of course the natural response was to start a war that killed thousands of people and ruined an entire city. Along the way we meet legendary side characters including Achilles, of heel fame; Odysseus, an Ithacan King; Hector, the hero of Troy; and a certain giant wooden horse.

Euripides’s play The Trojan Women picks up once the decade-long siege of the city has ended to tell the stories of the women who have survived after their husbands, sons and fathers have died in battle. It focuses on four women: Hecuba, Queen of Troy, Andromache, wife of the Trojan prince Hector, Cassandra, a priestess who can predict the future but is doomed never to be believed, and Helen, the unwilling centre of the drama. Despite the title, Helen is actually Greek, the only character who is not Trojan by birth.

In true Greek tragedy style, there’s not much lightness in the story. As close relatives of the Greeks’ defeated enemies, the women are destined to become concubines or slaves. Throughout the play, the women grieve the loss of both their loved ones and their home – the city of Troy – a theme that has often been used in the years since to draw parallels with more recent wars and their aftermaths.

Did any of this this really happen? 

Kind of! A bit, anyway. Maybe.

Evidence from a ruined city in Hisarlik, located in present-day Turkey, suggests that the mythology surrounding the Trojan War has roots in a real conflict estimated to have happened around 1500 BCE. The story of the siege would then have been passed down throughout the centuries, taking on more and more mythological properties until the battlefield was contested by epic heroes, Gods, and even a morally affronted river (yes, really).

The Trojan Women was first performed in 415 BC, the same year in which the island of Melos was captured by the Athenians, who then slaughtered and enslaved its residents. Euripides already had a reputation for political commentary; his play Medea, for example, uses the downfall of its main character to comment on xenophobia and the oppression of women (you may have seen Liz Lochead’s impactful retelling of this tale at the 2022 Festival). Many classicists believe the conflict in Melos could have directly inspired the writing of this play.

So the play has been performed for over a thousand years?

Indeed! Since it’s conception, the play has been revived and reinterpreted many times and is often performed as a way of protesting the brutality of war and grieving destroyed homelands.

Jean-Paul Sartre staged a version in 1965 that centred on the Indochina wars, casting French colonialists as the inglorious Greeks and the Vietnamese as the unfortunate Trojans. More recently in Scotland, the Trojan Women’s Project performed the play with a cast of refugees of the Syrian war, highlighting the ongoing crisis and the plight of those who have fled it.

Other notable adaptations have included The Trojan Women performed to honour victims of the Holocaust, the attack on the Twin Towers, and the conquest of the Owu Kingdom in West Africa. 

So where does Ong Keng Sen come into it?

Ong Keng Sen, a writer and director, is renowned for combining Eastern and Western performance traditions and stories into his productions.

Sen saw great similarities between the performances of ancient Greek and the traditional Korean art form of pansori. Both are musical, passionate and epic, not bound to realism. They share a love of grand tragedies, gods, nature and stories of pain and suffering, to be sung and screamed from behind ornate masks and sumptuous costumes.

Sen was drawn to the story as a way to honour the women of Korea who ‘suffer but at the same time … are extremely fiery and passionate’. His production aligns with the play’s long history of drawing attention to the human suffering caused by war, evoking resonances of of the Korean comfort women of the Second World War – women who were enslaved by the Japanese military.

Trojan Women also continues Ong’s explorations of identity and diaspora, themes previously explored in productions such as The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers and a subversive version of Richard III with gender-swapped casting. His version of Trojan Women casts a male performer in the role of Helen of Troy. This reflects how the play would have been performed in Ancient Greece, with an all-male cast, while highlighting transgressive qualities and conflicting loyalties of a Greek character among the Trojans.

What is pansori? 

Pansori is a traditional form of musical entertainment that has been performed by Korean artists from the 17th century up to the present day. Pansori is made up of three essential components: the clown – a singing performer, the gosu – a percussionist, and the audience. The crowd are encouraged to participate in the drama and contribute to the performance, creating an immersive form of storytelling.

The earliest performers of pansori were shamans and street performers, but as the artform became accepted by the upper classes, it was staged similarly to western operas.

What about the music?

The songs of Trojan Women were composed by Ahn Sook-sun, a superstar of the pansori world, whose voice and charisma first sparked Ong Ken Sen’s interest in the artform during a visit to Korea way back in 1998. Sook-sun then collaborated with Jung Jae-il, the composer behind the scores of Parasite and Squid Game and an acclaimed K-pop producer.

The music adds elements of hope to the play’s tragic narrative. The survivors come together in song, demonstrating a continued shared cultural identity in spite of the destruction of their homeland.

How do I get tickets?

Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea and directed by Ong Keng Sen is at the Festival Theatre from 9–11 August 2023.

2023 marks 140 years of diplomatic relations between Korea and the UK. To celebrate this important anniversary, the Edinburgh International Festival is delighted to welcome a wide range of Korean artists to perform across the programme. 

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