The Korea Herald

ssg
지나쌤

[Herald Review] Changgeuk version of ‘Merchants of Venice’ balances East, West

By Park Ga-young

Published : June 20, 2023 - 18:36

    • Link copied

A scene of Belmont Island in A scene of Belmont Island in "The Merchants of Venice" (National Changgeuk Company of Korea)

For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and the genre of Changgeuk, the combination of the two might not sound so appealing.

After watching such an attempt, "The Merchants of Venice" by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, one might change their mind.

Changgeuk is akin to a Korean version of opera. It derives from pansori, Korea's traditional narrative singing form that is registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. “Chang” refers to pansori, while “geuk” means drama in Korean. It is a relatively recent creation that dates only to the early 20th century, which came about with the construction of Western-style theaters and the director role.

The production team, led by director Lee Sung-yol, and the cast of top pansori performers did not disappoint.

Pansori singer Kim Su-in performs as Bassanio while Min Eun-kyung (left) portrays Portia in Pansori singer Kim Su-in performs as Bassanio while Min Eun-kyung (left) portrays Portia in "The Merchants of Venice." (National Changgeuk Company of Korea)

Top pansori performers Kim Jun-su (Shylock) and Yu Taepyeongyang (Antonio), key factors to attracting younger audiences to Changguek theaters, executed their roles in a balanced way.

A new discovery came in Kim Su-in, who portrayed a strong Bassanio, the best friend of Antonio, with his acting and pansori singing grabbing attention.

The four-day run June 8-11 ended successfully, and the reception probably guarantees the return of the production in the near future -- an example of creating a great balance of traditional Korean culture and one of the world’s best-known stories.

Pansori singer Kim Jun-su performs Shylock in Pansori singer Kim Jun-su performs Shylock in "The Merchants of Venice." (National Changgeuk Company of Korea)

In this rendition, themes of racial discrimination and religious tensions present in the original play have been replaced by the power struggle between Shylock, a wealthy shipowner in Venice, and Antonio, the leader of a small merchants' union. It also omits Shylock’s daughter, Jessica.

According to a British audience member who studied Shakespeare at school, the Changgeuk version changed a lot of the story, yet managed to bring the story closer to Shakespeare's original intention.

“Shakespeare wrote his plays for common people, so there are a lot of scandalous jokes, funny scenes and exciting drama in his plays. But because the language is now very old, a lot of people think it is serious and boring to read,” Heather Currie from the UK told The Korea Herald after the June 8 show.

"The Merchants of Venice" (National Changgeuk Company of Korea)

“I think this production showed a great understanding of Shakespeare by not only telling the story well, but also creating the atmosphere that Shakespeare wanted people to enjoy his stories with," she said. Now in her fourth year living in Seoul, Currie watched the show with other foreign experts with whom she enjoys performing arts.

According to her, this Changgeuk version was the best production of "The Merchant of Venice" that she has seen and one of her favorite Shakespeare interpretations of all time, saying, “I was truly astonished that through traditional Korean art forms, they were able to take dead words on a page and truly bring them to life on stage.”