Korean Shakespeare with Heung and Energy
Killbeth, adapted and directed by Sun Woong Koh, at Theatre Mabangzen, Seoul.
The title, Killbeth, is a pun on the phonetic resemblance of the name Macbeth in English to the approximate sounds Kallo Mac Beth in Korean, which mean “slashing with a knife.”
In terms of interpretation, Theatre Mabangzen's Killbeth, reorganized and directed by Sun Woong Koh, is interesting but not extraordinary.
What charms most foreign experts about Korean theatre are its jovial heung, dynamic gyee, its energy and rhythm. Indeed, traditional Korean performance can be said to achieve an incomparably high level in terms of its sound score, melody and dance, and at present, Korean performers are widely known for their outstanding instinctual “animal sense,” and their improvisational and communication skills. What they typically lack, on the other hand, is the kind of clear sense of the playwright and/or director that enables the transformation of potential into an actual work, into the directorial confidence and tenacity to push the concept to the extreme, and into the complete unity of stage and scenography with the technical aspects. However, recent Korean performances do possess both the distinctive characteristics of Korean theatre and a complete performance concept, and as a result, are entirely the equal of foreign guest performances.
Theatre Mabangzen, led by Sun Woong Koh, is characterized by its intensive physical training and high energy. The action of Killbeth takes place in Serengeti Bay, an anarchic, violent and isolated setting, where unrestrained beasts fight tooth and nail. Since the 1980s, violence as the core of Shakespeare’s world has often been seen as an interpretation, at home as well as abroad, and not only in Macbeth, but also in Othello and even Romeo and Juliet. Killbeth contains an animality depicted by the hyper-masculinity of the male body. This can be understood as an extension of the Shakespearean continuum, evil-violence-animality-masculinity-body, a notion introduced to Korea recently through international festivals.
Just as Jan Kott illustrated in King Lear that we live in a world of violence and evil, it has been hard to deny that violence exists in the face of regional violence around the world, the overall impulsive violence of the postmodern era, and our constant exposure to violence through mass media. This violence is present regardless of time period and, if anything, has gotten stronger over time. What drives Shakespeare’s main characters to tragedy is no longer a disturbance of the universal order or unwitting hamartia, but every sort of ever-present violence. And such violence tends to be expressed through almost animal-like, exaggerated men's bodies in the case of physical theatre, or in any form of theatre that is primarily bodily.
We saw this violence at play in the Othello done by the Vigszinhaz Comedy Theatre of Budapest, performed in 2010 at the World Festival of National Theatres, held in Korea. Their production takes the position that what leads its main characters to tragedy is not Iago's scheming, but rather masculinity itself, which is depicted by a bellicose field army surrounding them. Othello is not a black man, but a belligerent soldier who applies black camouflage to his face as the audience watches, and the setting is not an island, but an army barracks where various combat drills are being conducted. In the last scene, Othello enters Desdemona's bedroom in his combat uniform and kills her; her dead body, wrapped in a trap net, hangs in midair.
The Slovenian Macbeth, directed by Ivica Buljan, also invited to the 2010 Seoul Performing Arts Festival, demonstrated that a nearly-naked men's scrimmage, a kind of feast of the masculine body, is in fact “a desire for power.” From beginning to end, surrounded by the audience in a small square stage space, the men translated every conflict into physical violence, such as fist-fighting, wrestling and mimicking dogs among other things. At the same festival, in director Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet from Berlin, the collapse of Hamlet was made visible in his less-than-youthful, destroyed body, in his voracious belly drooping in a worn-out jumper. The outcry from this middle-aged body, discarded in the mud, was the palpable form of the sensation given by the performance.
The wild animal concept that Sun Woong Koh employed in his Killbeth tells us that it’s a man's world, where people struggle for power like beasts. Comparisons with animals formed a part of the universe of Shakespeare’s era, and it was a metaphor that he often used to describe a villain in his work, such as in King Lear. Therefore, the interpretation and performance concept for Sun Woong Koh's Killbeth are interesting but not very creative, and the production should be recognized for its theatrical strengths in performance. There were also several things he added that went beyond the performances we saw in the Vigszinhaz and Ivica Buljan productions: physical training of the actors based on oriental martial arts, a clear sense of rhythm, humorous banter with the audience, and partial evocation of the original Shakespearean language and sentiment.
Director Koh's Theatre Mabangzen has seasoned itself with other works such as Steel King, Moon of Buffalo and Elder Brother Came Back, making the theatre itself like a body with a wild animal’s muscles of steel, all rhythm of accelerated energy and spiced up excitement. Even beyond these, the actors went through special martial arts training over a five-month period for this production. The stage is, by and large, simply empty, with only steel railings around the back and side walls, and movable steel staircases for climbing up and down. When the performance begins, a dozen warriors of no specific era appear out of the darkness upstage. They introduce themselves and the play, show off their martial arts skills and plunge into the actual performance. Their movements and language are manly and violently exaggerated. They give an impression of self-satire, wearing rubber dishwashing gloves and, instead of warriors’ costumes from a particular period, baseball catchers' masks.
The well-trained bodies of the actors, their dialogue that gushes out with accumulated energy as if from a cannon, and their decisive body movements overwhelm the audience; the beats of the theatrical rhythm that sparks through the ensemble mesmerize the audience. This goes on for at least two-thirds of the performance. The tensile energy, the variety and laughter all create a rarely-seen theatrical density, and the audience drives the performance forward by interacting with the humorous rhythm created by the actors. The paths the blocking takes, chopped, cut and broken up like a mouse trapped in a maze, maximize the energy and effectively express a foolish creature obsessed with power. Furthermore, comic strains in the characters surface spontaneously and create a distancing effect, showing cracks in their manly power and giving a modern edge to the original text.
Toward the end, however, the production’s concept gets looser, and the overall production begins to lose its appeal as the amount of explanatory content increases. This makes me question the interpretation that runs through the production. While Sun Woong Koh changed the play to an isolated criminal group setting in the future, emphasized the comedy in the violence, replaced the witches with a blind Asian prophet and an ethical old Buddhist monk, and modernized the language, no fundamental changes were made to the values, characters and storylines of the original work. Behind the postmodern concept of “beasts in the future enjoy their violence and understand its comical aspects,” there remains a traditional good-evil dichotomy assumed to be an orientalized version of the values in Shakespeare’ era. Besides, the Buddhist monk-observer’s exclamations about “nirvana” and “nihilism” are simply platitudes.
One interesting issue is where women fit into this notion of “evil-violence-wild animal-masculinity-body.” If the world’s evil is to be blamed on masculine violence, where do women stand? Should women be depicted as pure and weak in contrast to man's animal-like violence? All of these directors were smart enough to avoid such a melodramatic pairing, but their alternatives were unclear and unsatisfactory. A feature their women all shared was constrained femininity. Othello’s Desdemona appeared as the usual vulgar woman in order to escape from suggesting a “Beauty and the Beast” dynamic, and Lady Macbeth from Slovenian Macbeth was depicted as a middle-aged woman who is asexual, strong, covetous of power, and seemingly incorporated into the world of male power. Lady Macbeth in Killbeth expresses exaggerated femininity by wearing clothes so flashy they suggest a drag queen. As this kind of thing is a rare sight indeed in Asian society, she gets points for being amusing in a theatrical way, and for getting the audience giggling. However, she fails in bringing out any understanding of the production as a whole. Also a very strong woman, Macduff's wife fights against assassins and periodically expresses her motto, “All men are useless,” through musical-like songs and dances, but she could nevertheless not influence the interpretation. These women are not obliged to save a male-oriented, devastated Western modern civilization, as Ophelia was in Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine. With life in Seoul today just as realistic and sophisticated as other places in the world, we cannot accept such naïve thinking. The characters tried vaguely to hint at gender exchange.
Every single theatre working with Shakespeare’s texts must face this problem of interpretation. A whole new interpretation of a play is not easy, while partial solutions are possible. Leaving this an open question, Killbeth’s virtues could be found in the performance rhythm, energy, and humor. While most parts of the original play have been replaced by Koh's volubility and stage humor, the main themes of Macbeth related to greed, fear, anger, and repentance shine brightly in important scenes. Such is the case in the scenes when Macbeth confesses his fear after killing Duncan, and speaks to the vanity of life before his death. Surprisingly enough, between bouts of laughter, the audience could see into the true heart of a human being, and commune with his scars while hearing each moment of Macbeth's lines.
Translated by Jisoo Nam
Edited by Matti Linnavuori and Lissa Tyler Renaud
 Bangock Kim is a theatre critic and a professor of Dongguk University of Korea. She worked as a former president of Korean Association Theatre Critics and Korean Theatre Studies Association.
 A joyful throwing off of inhibitions, or a quality of unbridled enthusiasm that is recognizable in, and particular to, the Korean character. In the context of traditional Korean aesthetics, it suggests a sense of high spirits or exuberance between creators, or between a creator and appreciative spectators.
 Perhaps more widely familiar to other cultures as chi, the flow of life energy, or the animating force in living things. As a concept applied to aesthetics in Korea and North Eastern Asia, it refers to the energy exchanged between creators, or between a creator and appreciative spectators.