On the 19th of January I was lucky enough to be invited along by the Korean Tourism Office to “Ukchuk-Ga: Pansori Mother Courage”, which was being performed at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 2015 Sydney Festival.
Ukchuk-Ga is a Pansori adaption of the famous German play “Mother Courage” by Bertolt Brecht. In this adaption our “Mother Courage” Soon-jong trudges firmly through her life of desolation and despair through war and death. Our young Soon-jong and her first son are abandoned by her family-in-law due to a rumor of promiscuity. Her second husband is addicted to gambling, women and drinking so Soon-jong takes her now two sons and leaves him. Her third husband gives her a daughter, but he is abusive and Soon-jong escapes with her three children and changes her name to the global name “Anna” in the hopes that it will change her fate. To support her young family she becomes a war merchant, surviving on the pickings of wars.
Her children soon grow up and, despite her pleadings, both her sons are taken for the war. But there continues to be nothing but misfortune in her story and both of her sons are soon dead. Through her despair she raises her head and pronounces she will henceforth be known as “Ukchuk”.
With only her daughter left they continue along their road with the merchant cart, eventually reaching a farmhouse. Choo Sun, the daughter (still performed by Jaram), performs the most beautiful song about a little island drifting through its life. And so it is that Ukchuk leaves to make a purchase at the nearby castle when soldiers pass Choo Sun and the cart. Being aware of the soldiers intentions to carry out a night attack Choo Sun climbs and beats relentlessly on a large drum to sound the alert. The stage is lit with black and red, as the back curtain is pounded to the sound of the drum. Bang! A shot is fired into Choo Sun. Drum drum drum, she continues to sound the alarm. BANG! Choo Sun falls.
A returning Ukchuk discovers all her children are now dead and she wails and screams into the darkening stage. In this moment you feel your heart stop as this mother’s pain and despair reaches out into the audience and captures us all in this deathly silence.
Ukchuk straightens herself, looks forward, and walks out of the stage on her endless path and the audience is still there completely captured by the performance until the lights return to the theatre and Jaram is greeted with thunderous standing ovations.
I (and everyone else in the theatre judging by the talk afterwards) was absolutely blown away by the performance. Pansori is a very emotive form of art to begin with, and coupled with this devasting story makes for a very affecting performance.
Truly, Jaram Lee is one incredible woman- writer, composer and singer of this production. Having practiced Pansori since the age of four, Jaram Lee is dedicated to sharing this traditional art with new audiences through the creation of contemporary performances. In Ukchuk-Ga she is supported on stage by three musicians, but it is really a solo performance. Through the entire 2hrs she never falters- switching between character voices and narration and demonstrating those incredible sounds and vocal flexibility one can associate with a true master of the Pansori art. It’s almost unbelievable to watch and listen to, our only snaps back to reality come when she pauses every so often to cheekily state “I’m just going to have a quick drink of water”.
If ever you have the opportunity to watch a Pansori performance, especially one written/composed/sung by Jaram Lee, then you should leap at the chance. This was a performance that is going to stay with me, the incredible Mother Courage steadily climbing up her long lonely endless path into blackness.
(You can view the event program here)