The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] 'Age is not a limit,' says young cast of changgeuk 'Lear'

Kim Jun-soo, Yu Tae-pyung-yang perform roles of King Lear, Earl of Gloucester in traditional Korean music-drama adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : April 2, 2024 - 16:49

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Kim Jun-soo (left) and Yu Tae-pyung-yang perform the changgeuk Kim Jun-soo (left) and Yu Tae-pyung-yang perform the changgeuk "Lear." (National Theater of Korea)

Among Shakespeare's tragedies, "King Lear" stands out for its portrayal of one of the oldest protagonists. Betrayed by his daughters, losing his kingdom, his sanity, and ultimately his life, the stage is filled with the anguished cries of a monarch in his twilight years.

In a groundbreaking departure from convention, young "changgeuk" performers took the lead roles in the sold-out production of "Lear" by the National Changgeuk Company, affiliated with the National Theater of Korea.

Changgeuk is a genre of Korean opera. It derives from "pansori," a traditional narrative form of singing involving a solo singer and a percussionist that is registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Stepping into the roles of King Lear and his steadfast ally, the Earl of Gloucester, are leading stars in the changgeuk scene, Kim Jun-soo, 32, and Yu Tae-pyung-yang, 31.

Kim Jun-soo (center) and Yu Tae-pyung-yang (first from right) perform the changgeuk Kim Jun-soo (center) and Yu Tae-pyung-yang (first from right) perform the changgeuk "Lear." (National Theater of Korea)

In a recent interview with The Korea Herald, the two said age is not a limiting factor in their portrayal of the roles.

“The role intrinsically requires a lot of years of experience. I was concerned at first about how to express this character. (His age being) 80 years old felt like a huge mountain to conquer,” said Kim.

“I felt a little more at ease with director Jung's advice. Instead of attempting to mimic old age, I concentrated on embodying the character's essential humanity. And on conveying his emotions through lines and singing.”

The changgeuk “Lear” premiered in 2022. Director Jung Young-doo, active in dance, theater and musicals; playwright Pai Sam-shik and pansori composer Han Seung-seok joined forces with composer Jung Jae-il, who is best known as the music director of the Oscar-winning "Parasite" and Netflix's globally popular "Squid Game."

Kim Jun-soo plays King Lear in the changgeuk Kim Jun-soo plays King Lear in the changgeuk "Lear." (National Theater of Korea)

Now, two years after the changgeuk's premiere, Kim said the character resonates more deeply with him.

“I'm now two years older than when it premiered, and I’ve noticed my own feelings have changed,” Kim said.

“At first, I saw Lear as an eccentric old man, somewhat arrogant and proud. I sympathized with his daughters. Now I could empathize with Lear and see the profound loneliness he must have felt. It’s often said that as people age, they become more childlike.”

"My understanding of my father deepened," Kim continued. "It makes me sad and think about when he grew old."

Yu Tae-pyung-yang plays Gloucester in the changgeuk Yu Tae-pyung-yang plays Gloucester in the changgeuk "Lear." (National Theater of Korea)

Yu chimed in that he, too, felt the weight of portraying an elderly man -- King Lear’s aging subject and the father of two sons.

"But now that we've been studying and rehearsing the roles for a long time, certain gestures have emerged naturally on their own," Yu said.

He also noted the parallel between Gloucester's plight and that of Lear.

"Gloucester is a character facing circumstances akin to Lear's. He has two sons -- one legitimate and the other illegitimate. The illegitimate son's greed leads to betrayal, resulting in Gloucester being deceived and having his eyes gouged out, leaving him homeless and in a similarly dire situation to Lear."

Despite their parallel narrative, there are not many scenes where the two physically meet on stage.

"Lear and Gloucester seldom share the stage in direct encounters. But I think the audience can feel the emotional resonance shared between them."

Kim Jun-soo (center) and Yu Tae-pyung-yang (second from right) rehearse for the changgeuk Kim Jun-soo (center) and Yu Tae-pyung-yang (second from right) rehearse for the changgeuk "Lear." (National Theater of Korea)

One point of difference, Yu said, is how the two cope with their children’s betrayal: Lear slowly loses his mind, but Gloucester holds on to his senses until the very end.

“There is a scene at the end where they meet on a cliff after Lear goes mad and Gloucester's eyes are gouged out. Gloucester, seeing Lear, wonders how a once noble king has fallen so tragically. Gloucester empathizes with Lear and reflects on his own pitiful situation,” Yu said.

“Each time we rehearse this scene, the exchange of lines between Lear and Gloucester reaches a point where I get goosebumps. It's truly touching, and I hope it deeply resonates with the audience too.”

“Lear” kicked off on March 19 at the National Theater's Daloreum Theater and runs until April 7.