nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
June 23, 2011
A highly stylized adaptation of Hamlet performed in Korean, Hamyul feels like a traditional drama that could have been performed in the ancient Korean court. Coming out of that aesthetic, Ophelia's long sleeve dance, and the play-within-a-play performed by three "shamen" and an operatic singer, stand out for their power and finesse. Sen Hea Ha's choreography is marvelous, and director Byungkoo Ahn delivers grace amidst formality. If this style of Asian theatre appeals to you, then you should consider swinging by La MaMa.
Sen Hea Ha, who plays Ophelia, gives the strongest performance in the production. Both of her dances are simply gorgeous. Her long sleeve dance contains graceful suffering. After, she removes a wrap from around her head to reveal it shaved, and concludes frozen with her chest lifted so her head is upside down: she is broken; this was an almost alien image.
The play-within-a-play is a frenzy of sound and movement. Manic percussion, epic opera, rushing stage steps and bursting fans, bring forth the terror of the murder committed by Claudius. Sen Hea Ha's choreography casts a spell.
The sound design by Young Wan Seo is a seamless mixture of live and prerecorded music by Ok Kyun Kang. Head musician Rami Seo leads a group strongly synched with the onstage action.
The set design by Jung Griffin, hanging transparent rectangles of grey and beige, gives a pleasing sense of the ancient.
It is difficult to remain connected to acting across a language barrier when formality prevents clear shifts of thought. There are no small beats. Generally, an emotional choice is sustained, which along with the meditative pace, makes for moments of beauty or of emptiness. When Ilkyu Park, as the ghost of King Hamlet, soars through, his face masked in a puff of red fabric, slow delivery meshes with haunting pauses. But afterward, maintaining the ghostly pace loses urgency. This may be inherent in the stylistic choice made for the production, but I detached from the action in many of these spaces.
There are numerous exceptions, such as Ilkyu Park as Claudius at prayer in the chapel. He drops his courtly mask without sacrificing the production's formal style, and we see his desperation. Also, Park is responsible for the dramatic sword fight choreography that fades in and out of slow motion.
Young Kun Song's Hamlet is particularly boyish. His first soliloquy is a sustained weep. "To be or not to be" is slow and sharply divided: "to be" (then puts sword tip to neck) or "not to be." His dance with a long piece of fabric is a pleasure, and clearly reminiscent of flailing in a straight jacket, but that is one of the few real references to Hamlet's madness.
Manho Kim is a male playing a female Polonius, the only comic character we encounter. His light-hearted scurrying is a fresh breath of air in this tragedy.
I think there may have been an error with the otherwise flawlessly aligned supertitles for Hamlet's last line. Song said a word, the screen read "I'm…" and Song said a couple more words, but "I'm…" remained on the screen, as the stage faded to black. Since the supertitles were some of the best aligned with the stage action I have seen, and Hamlet's last words are "the rest is silence," it is possible director Ahn is toying with the English speaking audience a tad. The translation by Rachel N. Han is sometimes Shakespeare, sometimes translations into English of the Korean originally translated from English. The adaptation by Minsoo Ahn and Byungkoo Ahn is a clean comprehensible cutting.
Hamyul was originally produced at La MaMa in 1977, directed by Min Soo Ahn, the father of this production's director.