“Those stories…they’re not for us. Why dream about something that can’t be?”
You know how it is, you wait for a play about North Korea and two come along at once. But where Mia Ching’s You For Me For You used an absurdist approach to explore the impact of the Kim regime on individuals (and by extension, whole swathes of its population), In-Sook Chappell uses the frame of a classic thwarted love story, stretching over nearly three decades, to examine what life might be like in the harsh realities of the Communist state in P’yongyang.
When we first meet them, Anna Leong Brophy’s Yeon Eun Mi and Chris Lew Kum Hoi’s Park Chi Soo are schoolmates with a shared passion for cinema and soon enough, each other. They both dream of attending prestigious film classes in the capital P’yongyang but the revelation that Chi Soo’s father was born in the South demarcates him as lower-born in the strict rules of their society and thus their lives are set on radically different paths.
Thus Chappell depicts Eun Mi’s ‘rise’ to the status of Kim Jong-Il’s favourite, himself a cinephile who adopts the sleazy alias of ‘The Producer’ to give his own special acting classes. And we see how Chi Soo becomes trapped in the vicious grip of absolute poverty with his parents, director Chelsea Walker switching back and forth from these different forms of suffering with real pace and an assured touch which means the drama never becomes too oppressive.
Flashes of wry humour puncture the gloom and there’s an interesting acknowledgment of the theatricality of the way North Koreans are forced to live their lives, as Eun Mi and Chi Soo cross each other’s’ paths time and again. Leong Brophy and Kum Hoi connect beautifully as the young lovers and both track the weariness of experience well in later scenes, sterling support comes from Lourdes Faberes and Daniel York who both cover multiple roles.
P’yongyang whirls quickly though effectively through its business and in its central battle between hope and delusion, questioning not just what the North Koreans are force-fed through propaganda but also what Westerners swallow just as easily, if less obviously perniciously, it marks the Korean-born Chappell as a fascinating writer who should be well worth watching out for.