Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, as performed by the Yohangza Theatre Company, is one of the most moving versions of Shakespeare I have ever seen.
The company, which formed in 1997, has a vision to create a unique world in which Asian performance traditions are given universal expression on the international stage. They take plays which were once traditionally centered on dialogue and replace it with actors using their physical bodies to convey images and create the mis-en-scene.
The production, entirely in Korean, was subtitled in English so the audience could keep up with the location in the plot. Familiarity with the text helped, but the skill of the actors alone was enough to convey the messages accurately and the subtitles were almost not necessary.
Kudos to Jung-Yong Jeon, in the title role of Hamlet, for his passionate, emotionally charged and exceptional performance. The entire ensemble was outstanding, but special mention should be given to Hae-Kyun Cheong as Claudius for an intense performance, Seung-Hae Nam in the role of Ophelia who gave a sweet characterization, which contrasted nicely to her madness, and Sang-Bo Kim in the role of Horatio.
The set was simple yet functional, and in every aspect enhanced the emotional state of the production. The stage was a raised rectangular platform surrounded by a bed of rice, which looked like sand. Either side of the stage was flanked with traditional Korean instruments and drums. Cast members played the instruments at key moments throughout to build tension and heighten the mis-en-scene. The rice, gave a wonderful textural feel, crunching under foot when the actors moved, and spraying around the room when they ran, rushed or quickly stopped. Its fluidity worked well when it was poured from the hands of the actors or thrown in a fit of anger. The raised stage area had its own significance and entering and exiting the space added great weight to the context.
The production incorporated tradition through the Shamanic rite of gut. According to shamanistic culture, a gut is a practice that gives expression to a shaman’s way of thinking. Dead King Hamlet is liberated through the ritual of Jinogigut at the opening of the show, Ophelia’s spirit is brought out of the water through a Sumanggut ceremony, and at the end of the show Hamlet’s sprit is liberated before he dies through a Sanjunogigut.
The concept of mixing shamanism with Hamlet adds a lot of joyful moments of song and dance, which point up the emotions of the characters, both in their happiness and madness. The audience clearly loved the show, and the standing ovation at the end was a testament to the outstanding production.