- Ham Ik (Hamlet)by Eun-seong Kim
I am obsessed with either seeing a Shakespearean play or doing any Shakespeare-related activity in April, especially during the week of the bard's birthday celebration. When I lived in London, I counted the days until the opening of the Globe season and enjoyed exhibits along the South Bank. Then I moved to Stratford-upon-Avon and witnessed how British people and international visitors alike celebrated the bard's birthday in his hometown with parades, performances, and fireworks. After my return to Korea upon finishing my PhD, seeing Korean Shakespeare productions became my own ceremony. In 2018, I was lucky to see Romeo, the ssit-gim(cleansing), performed by Parandal (Blue [End Page 255]Moon), which attempted to appease Romeo's supposedly wandering soul by means of Korea's traditional shamanic ritual, gut. This year, I was able to see Ham Ik(Hamlet).
Hamletis among the most popular plays in Korea and is often adapted for the Koreans' appetite. In particular, most of the current Korean productions of Hamlethave attempted to create a so-called "Korean Shakespeare" by incorporating elements of Korean traditions into the play. After the national and international successes of some localized Korean productions, such as Yang Jung-ung's A Midsummer Night's Dreamand Oh Tae-suk's Romeo and Juliet, a number of theatre companies have indiscriminately incorporated Korean traditional elements into Shakespeare without any grammar or principle. This phenomenon led me to seek answers to the question: "What is Korean Shakespeare?" No one has been able to provide an authoritative answer to this question. However, I would say that an authentic Korean Shakespeare should not refer simply to the productions where actors wear traditional attire and perform traditional dance and music whilst telling the story of a prince of Denmark and young lovers living in Italy. What I believe crucial is not the incorporation of traditional elements but, rather, the naturalization of Shakespeare's stories and characters into those acceptably Korean (which can be well accepted or consumed by the contemporary Koreans).
Happily, this production of Hamlet deviates from the burden of tradition. The adapter attempts to give the masterpiece a contemporary Korean setting, thus making the play completely modern. In contemporary Korea, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Danish prince, becomes Ham Ik, a woman (Ham is her last name and Ik her first name), who is a Korean scion of a chaebol(a large family-owned business conglomerate, such as Samsung, LG, or Hyundai, from chae, "money," and bol, "faction or clique"). Ham Ik studied in England, majored in drama at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is now a professor at a university founded by her father. Eun-seong Kim's switch of the protagonist's family background, from a royal family to a chaebol, is a clever move because a chaebolin South Korea is regarded as a modern version of a royal family. Even more intriguing is Ham Ik being a woman. According to the program, Kim sought a drama in which a weak and fragile being is forced to fight against the strong in order to achieve a difficult task, and she believes that a woman is weaker than a man in all societies (I would say that this is merely her own conception of the gender). In her imagination, therefore, Hamlet's story of facing difficulties and overcoming them would be more dramatic if Hamlet were presented as a woman.
Rather than faithfully retelling Shakespeare's original story, this production focuses entirely on Ham Ik's agony, which becomes the [End Page 256]central drama of the production. Her delicate psychology is caused by her mother's suicide, arising from the terrible shock of seeing her father's adulterous relationship with her present stepmother, who is similar in age to Ham Ik. Choi Na-ra conveyed Ham Ik's subtle emotion very well and drew empathy from members of the audience. She wore only black costumes throughout the play. Her voice was...