BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp London Review
The Last Empress
by Lizzie Loveridge
The Korean musical The Last Empress comes to London for sixteen performances. It is a flagship on a cultural mission to awaken Londoners to Korean culture. As it is a vehicle to promote international understanding through creative exchange, I shall review it positively. The subject matter is a wonderful story, based in historical fact on the nineteenth century struggles for power in the Far East between the Imperialist powers of Japan, Russia, Germany, Britain and France. Caught up in this was the nation of Chosun, now roughly the boundaries of the two Koreas. Queen Min (Tae Won Yi) was influential as astute advisor to her husband, the king of Chosun, Kojong (Seung Ryong Cho) in resisting Japanese domination. It cost her, her life. She was assassinated by Samurai warriors in her palace.
There are already two Curtain Up reviews from my colleagues, David Lipfert and Les Gutman who saw the show in New York. Links here The Last Empress and Second Thoughts on The Last Empress. The show is a costume spectacular with beautiful sets and exquisite traditional costumes. It has much to make it the Korean Les Misérables, a historical story of revolution and oppression, a sung through musical with clear lyrics and the swirling turntable set changes. The music may sound derivative and Western but it is tuneful and there are some pretty ballads.
I thought that Tae Won Yi, a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York, was exceptional. She is joined by some strong male singers. Hee Jung Lee brings a deep, resonating bass voice to the Regent who must come to terms with his daughter in law's reforming policy. I liked very much Min Soo Kim's General Hong, Min's faithful soldier. Seung Ryong Cho replaces the New York King Kojong and I suspect is more effective in the role. The children are delightful, both the pompous little Crown Prince (Jong Yoon Song) who makes a tragic end with his mother and the little girl (Yeseul Rhu) who sings about the late snow arriving and killing the cherry blossom, a metaphor for the political situation.
The lyrics in English, by Georgina St George, are a literal translation from the Korean. The rhymes rather simplistic and with no poetic value, but they do serve to explain the political complexities of Japanese expansionism. I liked the ceremonial dances with amazing costumes danced by the women but also the dance of the Samurai with long curving swords. The parts of the European ambassadors and their wives are taken by Korean actors, the men's wavy haired wigs are incongruous and an overstatement.
Much of the makeup is strong in the Eastern tradition. Most of the staging is effective but occasionally misses as in the scene where the foreign ship captains are warned off. The finale is a huge procession of the dead (strains of Les Mis again) fully costumed, but all in a dramatic white with a stirring march affirming Queen Min's memory and concern for her people. The Last Empress will play in Seoul from the end of March and will be a part of the official cultural programme for the soccer World Cup later this year.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.