Yu In-chon returns for his sixth ‘Hamlet’

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Yu In-chon returns for his sixth ‘Hamlet’


Actor Yu In-chon plays Hamlet for the sixth time this year. The production celebrates both the late Lee Hae-rang, who was the first Korean to stage “Hamlet” in its entirety back in 1951 and would have turned 100 this year, as well as Shakespeare himself, who would have turned 400. [JEON HO-SUNG, SEENSEE COMPANY]

In the midst of the Korean War, late theater legend Lee Hae-rang became the first person to stage Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” here in its entirety.

The play became something of an obsession for Lee, who continued to work on an adaptation until his death in 1989.

Lee would’ve turned 100 this year, and with the Bard also celebrating his 400th birthday, a special production of Hamlet is being staged in Korea.

The National Theater of Korea and Seensee Company have joined forces, gathering nine veteran theater actors including Chon Moo-song, Park Jung-ja, Son Sook and Yu In-chon for the run.


Veteran actors including Son Sook, far left, Jung Dong-hwan, center, and Yu rehearse for “Hamlet,” currently being staged at the National Theater of Korea. [JEON HO-SUNG, SEENSEE COMPANY]

All have received the Lee Hae-rang Theater Award, and their average age is 66.

Chon, who is 75 and the oldest in the group, plays Laertes. Yoon Suk-hwa, who turns 60 this year, will play the 17-year old Ophilea.

But among the actors, Yu, who is 65, has been garnering the most attention. It will be his sixth time playing Hamlet in his 45-year career.

Yu is no stranger to controversy. Despite his strong reputation as an actor, Yu took a break from the stage to perform an eight-year stint as the minister of culture, sports and tourism. His name was tarnished, however, after allegations of misconduct made headlines.

He left the Culture Ministry and resumed acting full-time in late 2012.

“This will be my last time playing Hamlet,” said Yu during a recent interview with JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. “How can I play him again?”

Yu first played the role in 1981.

“I happened to play Hamlet several times. I just feel sorry for younger actors,” said Yu, who spoke softly and carefully during the interview to protect his voice.

“I joined this play because I was one of the [Lee Hae-rang Theater Award recipients]. I wouldn’t join it if I was offered to the role of Hamlet [without these other actors involved] because it’s a burden. And there is a chance of failure, too. It wasn’t easy to be in this show because I have to keep my pace until the last day of performance.”

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. You must be honored to play Hamlet for the sixth time.

A. Of course I am. I’m also honored to be playing only Hamlet, whereas the other actors are double cast as members of the chorus.

The other actors seem quite excited to be part of this production.

We were in the beginning but not now. We are under pressure and feel responsible, too. I’m concerned about how the audience will react to this version of “Hamlet.” I’m trying to make the play as good as possible so that audience will focus on that rather than other aspects like our age.

Other actors say the whole rehearsal period has been physically challenging and feels harder than the days they were preparing for their first play.

That’s because this production is getting too much attention and even people typically not interested in plays are curious about it. It has turned out to be a good opportunity for the actors to develop, though. You can’t imagine how hard Chon is practicing. His voice is much clearer and louder than any young actor and he maintains straight posture throughout the rehearsals. We’re at it from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day. It has proved to be quite challenging.

What’s it like playing the same role for the sixth time?

I think I tried to look cool in the past but I find myself thinking about the inside of the character this time around. I used to be able to say “To be or not to be” with style and decent gestures, but I can’t do it at this age. Director Son Jin-chaek keeps emphasizing “poetic minimalism.” It means we shouldn’t act, but instead be honest. Our insides have to be filled with the emotions [of the characters]. This is a painful procedure.

If you compare your first Hamlet in 1981 and this Hamlet in 2016, how are they different?

They are totally different. There is a huge gap between the two because I worked in the public sector for eight years. In fact, you can’t separate acting with your life. Acting comes from what you have inside and what you have experienced. I’m still alive and kicking and I’ve been adding layers into my life over the past years. I would say this is the best time of my career. I turned down an offer from a college that asked me to teach acting. I don’t have any other job other than acting. The only title I have is the head of the supporters’ association at the National Cancer Center.

Have you ever worried about losing your fans after returning to acting from politics?

No. Some people may still criticize me but it doesn’t make me feel small. I’ve done much [as culture minister]. The media is partially responsible for [tarnishing my public image.] It doesn’t mean that I did nothing wrong, but when [the media] tried to disgrace me in every imaginable way, I was like “Okay, do whatever you want.”

Did serving in the public sector change your life in any way?

I consider it as one of the characters I played. It didn’t change my life for the better but I tried to be faithful to the given role at that time. I still get on subways and drive scooters. I don’t take pride in the job. I just try not to do harm to others because I used to work in the public service.

Have you ever asked yourself the question “To be or not to be”?

I’ll never forget when I did “The Merchant of Venice.” I couldn’t even say a word because my voice was so hoarse and I eventually ruined the play. That was a ‘to be or not to be moment’ for me. I felt like committing suicide. Since then, I try to live the stoic life whenever I do plays. My priority is staying in the best condition and doing a play until it comes to an end.

What are your ultimate goals?

Back in the early days, people used to stage plays in the broad daylight because they had no electricity at all. Because of this, Shakespeare wrote many lines because actors had to explain everything without the aid of technical help. Actors require a lot of training and practice. I performed Tolstoy’s “Kholstomer” in the daytime in Jeongseon, Gangwon last year and I gained a lot of confidence. Since the stage was located in the middle of the mountains, my voice echoed and it didn’t reach the audience well. It was bright in the daytime but the audience didn’t take their eyes off of me. Life is hard when you are doing a theatrical play, but I want to devote myself to acting. So please keep an eye on me whether I’m doing it right or not.
“Hamlet” will runs through Aug. 7 at Haeorum Theater, located inside of the National Theater of Korea, located in Jangchung-dong, Jung District, central Seoul.

The theatrical play is staged at 8 p.m. between Tuesdays to Fridays. On Saturdays, the first play is performed at 3 p.m. and the other at 7:30 p.m. On Sundays, only one play is staged at 3 p.m. No shows are on Mondays.

Ticket range from 30,000 won ($26) to 70,000 won.

The most expensive “royal seats” have all sold out until the final performance.

In order to get there, get off at Dongdae-ipgu Station, line No.3, exit no. 6 and transfer to a shuttle bus run by the National Theater of Korea. Alternately, the Namsan shuttle busses No.2 or No.5 will also take people to the theater.

For more information, visit http://www.ntok.go.kr/ (English available).

BY YOO JU-HYUN [so@joongang.co.kr]
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now