Hanguk Hamlet

It’s been a week of firsts for me.

I started the first job I’ve had in Korea where I feel like I am a valued professional rather than another Disposable English Monkey™ (parse, monkeyboy, parse!), and where I am treated (and compensated) accordingly. I did my first television interview, kicked interview ass, and got my first comments about how (inexplicably) good I seem to be at it.

Although I’ve eaten raw octopus before, I ate it for the first time seconds after it was killed and chopped to bits, in the casually cruel Korean style, tentacles wriggling obscenely on the plate, suckers gripping fiercely to the insides of my cheeks and my teeth as I chewed.

And tonight, I saw a Shakespeare play, on stage and in real life, for the very first time.

Not only was the play — a performance of Hamlet, directed by Korea’s most famous and lauded theatrical director, Lee Yoon Taek — my first Shakespeare, it was my first play in Korean too.

Not having much to compare it with other than a vaguely-recalled Death Of A Salesman about 25 years ago, it’s hard for me to say if it was a masterful interpretation of the material or not, but hell, I loved it. It was affectingly (and athletically) acted, beautifully designed, and, for lack of a better word, crunchy. Although I couldn’t understand more than one word in ten thanks to my pathetic efforts thus far in mastering Korean, I knew the story, of course, and though it may be sacrilege to say so, I didn’t mind the fact that my Shakespearan cherry-buster was essentially mime, with music.

I was wondering before we went if the translator would be able to preserve the music of the language, the rhythms and surge of it, in Korean. Sadly, they couldn’t, for the most part, not, I would assume, because of a tin ear, but because the music underlying Korean plays such a different song than the one that makes us dance in English.

The setting, at least in its cultural accoutrements, was Korean — the samulnori drums and percussion played a major role, and there were countless other references that anchored the performance firmly in Korea; in music and dance, in costume and prop, in set design and approach. The costumes were a mix of traditional Korea, ye olde Denmarke, and 20th century styles both modern and archaic. I was pretty sure that the suit that Guildenstern was wearing at one point was supposed to be a reference to the Japanese emperor during WW2, for example, although I may well have been farting in an interpretive windstorm on that one.

Regardless, I found myself wondering how many references I simply wasn’t getting, or getting entirely wrong. There I was, watching a play I haven’t reread in a decade, in a language I can’t speak worth a damn, chock-full of cultural references I almost certainly wasn’t catching, and I was in pig heaven! In part I suppose that was due to the Korean-crowd-pleasing song and dance routines, the swordfighting and the broad comedy, but not entirely, I don’t think.

What I mean to say is that there were certainly scores of well-educated Koreans in that concert hall who were soaking in the myriad subtleties in Lee’s directorial choices, in the deliberate linguistic felicities of the translation, in the references deliberate and merely fortuitous to matters of Korean history and culture in the dance and music and set design and in the ways that the actors delivered their lines, and whose minds were awhirl with the buzzing intelligence of this cross-cultural artifact. While I was just happily watching, with perhaps the thinnest rivulet of drool dampening my goatee a bit.

And it doesn’t matter. While their take-away from the performance was certainly different in perhaps every aspect from mine, and in both kind and degree the experience they had and the one I had were incomparable, it’s of no consequence at all.

This is why I could never have studied art or literature or film or anything of the kind at university. Because nobody has ever been able to convince me that even if (for example) you’ve studied a Shakespearean play for years, until you know the history and context of each and every nuance of the language and can name every innovation in every performance in the last 50 years, until your encyclopaedic knowledge of the author and his works dwarfs that of any other living human, until your wife has divorced you rather than hear another goddamn work about that scribbling bald f–k come out of your mouth….no one has ever convinced me that you the ‘expert’ are any closer to the kernel of the art than me, unschooled and unsophisticated, if I roll up to the show in my pick-me-up truck never having heard of ol’ Willy before, and leave the theatre 150 minutes later with my head ringing like a bell.

I’m funny that way.

This above all: to thine ownself be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

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4 thoughts on “Hanguk Hamlet

  1. I just hope the translation was better than the subtitles in videos, and the liberties taken with the original text were more poetic licenses, rather than translation’s mistakes…

  2. I agree, but don’t tell the professor next to me.
    Congratulations on the decent job (and TV interview). Like to hear more about them.
    P.S. Where are the pics?

  3. A song on my 49th birthday

    I turned 49 today. Or, more precisely, I turned 49 this morning at 7:02am. I’ve reached the age where I’ve lived too long to die and leave a beautiful corpse. The the only other option is to live long enough to become a burden on society. In one more y…

  4. Congrats on the octopus…next stop: a little place in Insa-Dong that serves LIVE octopus…ya, the little things are 100% alive as they go into your mouth. Luckily they’re immature, so no beaks, but those suckers really grab on to the inside of your cheeks!

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