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Ong Keng Sen’s Singing Trojan Women of Korea

Ong Keng Sen is a Singaporean director known internationally for work that mixes Western and Eastern performance traditions. He has been Artistic Director of independent theatre company TheatreWorks for the last fifteen years, and this weekend (2-3 June, 2018) he brings his opera Trojan Women to the UK as part of LIFT Festival. We spoke to the visionary director about the work, which thrilled Seoul in the year of its conception and enjoyed a sell-out run as part of Singapore International Festival of Arts last year.

Eli Goldstone: Trojan Women is a contemporary opera that brings the National Changgeuk Company of Korea to the UK for the first time. What can audiences expect from this production?

Ong Keng Sen:
It's a hybrid of so many different genres that you feel like sometimes you're watching a Western opera, and then sometimes you feel like it is is quite alien, because it's not really a Western opera genre.
But at the same time it is very musically centered, and in Korea the divide between Pansori opera and the modern musical is not that [big]. There is a kind of a melting continuum, which in the Western music convention, you really don't have, because you have opera or you have Taylor Mac. So I find that it's alien for me and for, I'm sure, people from the Western theatre convention, because we begin from such polarised positions. For example, this is not opera, this is a musical. This is not something that is contemporary, this is something that is modern.

Eli: Could you tell us about the connection between the Trojan Women and the Korean comfort women from the second World War?

Ong Keng Sen:
I think that we avoided an adaptation, because adaptation means that we would change the context of Trojan Women to fit the Korean comfort women situation. And then it becomes a situation which I feel is too forced. So I'm rather more interested in resonances and reverberations, so that you play something which initially feels like Euripides. But then as you go through it you realise that the women are taking personal positions which are coming from their cultural context. For example, I think that in most of the western political world father figures are important but not mother figures, but in Korean cultural context, women - mothers, grandmothers, children - are so naturally part of the picture. While again in this kind of western polarised context you are either a housewife or you are a career woman.

I think that’s what’s very special about the Korean context; rather than forcing it into a ‘comfort women’ box, we decided to play it as it was, and work off the reverberations and resonances. You feel that children are very important to them, and you feel that mothers are very important to them and you feel that the ownership of the body is very important to them. When you become a comfort woman, you lose ownership of your body. I think that's something which, maybe, in the original context of Trojan Women you don't feel so strongly. Cassandra of course, even written 3000 years ago by Euripides, talks about how she would use her body as a weapon, and she will in a sense still hold on to the ownership of her body despite the fact that she was going to Agamemnon. So there's a real sense that even 3000 years ago, this issue was embedded inside the material, but somehow, through the specifics of the Korean context this articulation becomes fresh.

Eli: You were born to immigrant parents in Singapore, so how much did your own sense of cultural identity influence the work that you've created?

Ong Keng Sen:
A lot of my work is based on juxtaposition of differences. Instead of removing or wiping out the difference I actually highlight the difference and work on a kind of tension between the differences.

I think that if I wasn't born to immigrant parents I would never be aware of difference. I think that when you are all homogeneous, you're never aware of difference. But when you are constantly negotiating difference as an immigrant child, you just feel that you're very sensitive in a way. That's why I feel like my role has always been in all my work to try to respond to difference rather than cover up difference. And the best way to do it is just to acknowledge, but to play with that acknowledgement.

Eli: Although you studied law and qualified as a lawyer, you’ve always been immersed in the world of theatre. How did theatre-making open up your world as a young man?

Ong Keng Sen:
I was already embroiled in theatrical activities in drama clubs in school from about seven or eight, before I knew what law was. I think that law is a kind of sophistication because when you get to know about your rights, it's much later - when you feel that you have something to defend. And as Antigone herself said, that "There is a natural law. There is a natural law which I will respect, that we are first and foremost humans and we are not criminals according to the law and hence I cannot bury my brother because he's a criminal."
So, I feel that the thing with theatre for me was much more natural because it was something that I knew as child, make-believe with my paper dolls, or going to drama club and it was only when I was 17, and I thought ‘oh, what are my rights? What should I be conscious about? Why am I not getting what I deserve?’ But I think that law really informed everything that I did, in terms of articulating what I consider a kind of politics of theatre. I mean, like: who owns what and how do we come together as a kind of political community?

Eli: You queered the role of Helen by giving the part to a male Pansori performer. What is the significance of that?

Ong Keng Sen:
The significance is that she's somebody who lives between two cultures and she felt that she had a legitimacy in both. So for me, this is a kind of a border character. And whether it's a gay, transgender, or a transformative character - I would prefer to see it as that she lived on the border. You couldn't be a Greek Trojan. You had to be Trojan or Greek.

You can't be a real person like Helen and not be aware that you are living in sin in the Palace of Troy. You ran away from your husband, you're living with another beautiful young man in the palace that doesn't belong to you. And it cannot be possible that she was unaware, so she constantly made choices all the time of what she wanted and I think that's a very valid position. When you live on the border and you want both, you don't want to give up anything. There's nothing wrong with those choices that she made but I have to, as a director, contend with the power of those choices. So she had to be a transgressive character and she had to be a border character.

Eli: What is the LGBT representation like in Singapore?

Ong Keng Sen:
The problem in a kind of new-liberal context like Singapore is that the LGBT community becomes ‘normalised’. I think that's problematic and unfortunately, that is happening a lot in Singapore because you feel like the LGBT has to constantly make concessions to belong. So there is very little radicalisation and I think that in a way that's why I chose Helen to be this way. Helen was not normal in any way. She continued to be in her whole presence in the performance, even as a man who performed it, and he doesn't have a wig. You feel very strongly that there is an androgyny that she has specifically positioned herself in, and I think these are extremely conscious directorial choices of actually [Helen] becoming more radical than if she wore a wig and she looked like a woman.
And most importantly insofar as a musical experience, Helen is not singing soprano, or alto tenor. Helen is finding a natural voice and I think that that's something that comes from Pansori because Pansori is not based on scales, Pansori is based on finding a natural voice and in fact most of the women sing very low. So for me that's a fascinating liberation of tradition.

Going back to the LGBT community, it is illegal in Singapore so as with any legality, you're then forced to find acceptance by becoming more ‘normal’ and I think that's essentially a problem. I think that some of the problems of Singapore are not based on just its rejection of the LGBT community - that's only symptomatic of a larger problem and the larger problem is that it is extremely authoritarian and how it puts money, law and order before everything else, before being human.

And so, because of that I feel that one of the reasons when I make a work like this, I'm not doing a gay play, but I'm doing something part of a larger politics. That sense of specificity and radicalisation, where you do not accept becoming normal, is the only way I have.

Eli: You are internationally established, a recipient of several international fellowships and a Fulbright scholar; was your ambition always to make work that was significant globally, not just in Singapore or Asia?

Ong Keng Sen:
In my company this year we've done a new English translation of Joel Pommerat's 'The Reunification of the Two Koreas', and it's interesting because we say that having this English version is ‘international’ as opposed to a French version. And then you suddenly realise that this idea of international and local is so stupid - at another time we would say doing a French play is about becoming international but suddenly when we do a French play and we translate it into English, that means becoming more international.

So there's a question of what's more international and what's less international. I think it shifts depending on where you are, which side of the bank you are looking from. So these are all just fixations.

I wanted to make work which had relevance. So for me it's not just about becoming international but it's about shifting the context. I find this much more challenging - and more interesting because I've always loved challenges. There is a radicalisation which happens when you are local, because you see the pungency of the issue, and sometimes I think that in becoming international the pungency is removed.

Eli: Do you feel like you have any of those challenges in London?

Ong Keng Sen:
I think so. Because I feel like London is a very international city. So I think this sense of London always has a challenge for me because you would think that it's very open - but actually it's extremely closed, like most international cities. So internationality is not really a hallmark of an open society.

Eli: Are there more opportunities for cross-cultural art performances to prosper now than there were when you first started making work?

Ong Keng Sen:
I think that when I first started making work, it was easier to be cross-cultural and cross-genre because it had never been done before. But now, everything's been done before and in that way, it's actually much more difficult to be truly committed to cross-cultural work.  
For me, I'm more committed to finding what continues to be radical. And that of course shifts because we are becoming so fatigued by all this radicalisation that having fish and chips [in London] is radical, for example. As I said about the intercultural, these things have all melted away.

Trojan Women
Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 June 2018
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Southbank Centre SE1.

Presented by LIFT, Southbank Centre and Korean Cultural Centre UK. A National Theater of Korea/National Changgeuk Company of Korea production, co-produced by National Theater of Korea and Singapore International Festival of Arts. Part of the Korea/UK 2017-18 Season hosted by Korean Cultural Centre UK. Supported by Arts Council England, Arts Council Korea and Grange Hotels.

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