It seems like every time North Korea makes a public proclamation – as they did this week with all their usual belligerent innuendo – sections of the world media perform a sort of two-step. First, the events are reported as described through the lens of official propaganda. Then experts are lined up to shed light on what might actually be going on. It’s a sort of regimesplaining. ‘I think what the People’s Republic means is…’
South Korean writer In-Sook Chapell makes an effort to excavate an honest, universal story from under the layers of contradiction that blanket one of the world’s most secretive nations. Her script is laden with research, and there’s an awful, undeniable ring of truth to the anecdotes of starvation and exploitation she puts in her character’s mouths. Hyperbolic descriptions of Yankee decadence sit alongside conversations about the best kind of grass to use to make subsistence stew. At times, all this information weighs down the wispy plot, which is as straightforward a story of star-crossed lovers as you’ll see.
There’s awkward but ambitious Eun Mi, who belongs to the loyal Core class, and her irrepressibly optimistic crush Chi Su, relegated to the untouchable Hostile class thanks to his father’s wartime allegiance. We meet them as teenagers and watch their dreams of making movies for the state-run studios in the capital wither in the oppressive atmosphere of the next three decades.
Imagine Titanic except with North Korea as the boat and communism as the iceberg. Replace James Cameron’s frantic energy with Chelsea Walker’s pensive direction, and substitute melodrama for quietly escalating tension and some tiny, delicate gestures.
Claustrophobia and paranoia infect every scene, from border crossings to teenage flirtations, creating a sense of the DPRK as less a country, more an open air prison, complete with the usual prison economies. Chi Su spends the last of his money on black-market meat for his ailing father, but in the same scene warns that ‘you can’t afford pity. That’s how people die.’ Others take terrible risks to watch contraband Chinese DVDs, or pass each other smuggled cigarettes and morsels of food. In the intimate enclosure of the Finborough theatre, the smells of smoke, soup stock, and orange peel are surprisingly visceral, suggesting cravings and hunger pangs. Amidst all the overbearing true-to-life tragedy and hope-in-hopelessness, though, this is one of the few features of the play that really gets under your skin.
That is not to fault the central performances, which are wonderfully realised, or the supporting cast who create clear characters in multiple roles. Daniel York is particularly memorable and grubbily believable as the cinema-obsessed Dear Leader moonlighting as a sleazy producer who treats P’Yongyang as his casting couch.
Throughout the play, the characters keep projecting themselves into other stories – scenes from favourite films, rote repetitions of official history, dreams of bright futures in different cities. Underlying it all is a simple need to be somewhere else than inside the lives they have, and this feels perversely natural when their whole country seemingly exists in its own artificial reality.