Trojan Women Edinburgh International Festival © Jess Shurte

Trojan Women

Reviewer’s Rating

During the all-too-frequent outbreaks of global conflict during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Euripides’ The Trojan Women has been a touchstone for dramatists and audiences looking to process the horrors of war. Its exploration of the cruelties perpetrated by the victorious Greeks on the women of defeated Troy has always had contemporary meanings in war-riven decades.

Watching this interpretation by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, it is impossible for thoughts not to turn to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the barbaric behaviour of its troops in occupied territory. Its central theme of the treatment of a defeated people must also have a particularly vital resonance for a company for whom the Korean War is no abstract historical event but a trauma well within living memory.

Changgeuk – a traditional form of Korean performing arts – turns out to be an excellent medium for Greek tragedy. It has its roots in the centuries-old genre of pansori, where dramatic vocals are performed by a single singer and a drummer. Here the tale is delivered by a cast of performers and musicians, with searing solos inter-weaving with massed choral howls of despair and punctuated by unsettling drums and strings.

Trojan Women is essentially one single, broken-hearted howl of horror, as various surviving Trojans bemoan their fate and that of their families. Hecuba, Queen of Troy, mourns her dead son Hector and learns of the slaughter of her daughter Polyxena. Cassandra, soon to be enslaved as the concubine of Agamemnon, finds solace only in visions of her captor’s grisly fate. Andromache, clutching her infant son Astyanax, sees no hope for the future at all, only to be pitched further into despair by news the Greeks will murder Astyanax.

Alone among the Trojan women, Helen appears serene and unruffled. Instead of discordant drums, her singing is punctuated by a soothing piano. Helen’s soft pleading persuades Menelaus – whose abandonment by her sparked 10 years of war – to spare her life. Helen alone avoids loss and despair, her swift return to the Greek ranks signified by her already dressing in the soft grey tunics of the Greeks, instead of the Trojan, virginal white of her fellow women.

The women begin the play holding balls of red yarn, standing out stark against their white gowns and a nod to the importance of weaving in Greek myths and the ancient world more widely. By turns, these balls of yarn seem to hint of bloody deaths on the battlefield and the treacherous wooden horse. Occasionally – usually in the presence of the Greeks – the audience are bathed in bright lights, making us either complicit in the treatment of the Trojans or possibly putting us in their place. Projections of fire and water, stars and clouds provide frequent backdrops to the action, complementing the themes of the text and enhancing the striking tableaux of the chorus.

Throughout, the stylised pansori style of singing in which the dialogue is delivered adds to the visceral power of these terrible events. The solos are true laments. The choral deliveries are blasts of pure power, enough to pin you to your seat. The National Changgeuk Company of Korea bring new life to this ancient play, investing its universal themes with a raft of new meanings and resonances.