Theatre review: In-Sook Chappell — P’yongyang

P'yongyang. The ensemble cast proclaim their loyalty to the motherland. Photo Credit Richard Lakos
P’yongyang. The ensemble cast (l to r Lourdes Faberes, Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Anna Leong Brophy, Daniel York) proclaim their loyalty to the motherland at the start of the play. Photo Credit Richard Lakos

After Mia Chung’s You For Me For You at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, which finished on 9 January, it was a relief to sit down to a play where you could believe in the characters and enjoy natural dialogue that you could imagine people uttering in real life.

The production, in a room above an Earls Court pub, was stripped-down, in an intimate space which initially you thought would not be sufficient for the actors. But they managed, because the focus was on emotions and relationships, and there was not a great deal of need for large amounts of stage-space, and certainly no need for the inventive set design and video projections that were the highlight of the play in Sloane Square.

Love blossoms under the smile of the Great Leader.
Love blossoms under the smile of the Great Leader. Chris Lew Kum Hoi as Chi-soo (l) with Anna Leong Brophy as Eun-mi (r). Pre-production photo by Chloe Courtney

The story is a simple one, of two lovers separated by class. Eun-mi, the would-be film actress from the Core class, falls for her 15-year-old classmate Chi-soo, a talented actor and writer from the Hostile class. Through Eun-mi, Chappell explains to the audience North Korea’s elaborate songbun system. And while we might be surprised that Chi-soo might not have been aware that he had “tainted blood” and therefore was unlikely to realise any of his dreams, North Koreans are reportedly not automatically aware of their class.

You can tell that Chappell has done her background reading, perhaps including Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy and the memoir of kidnapped South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee. The different fates of the star-crossed lovers and their eventual escape are well told with plenty of accurate detailing. A pedant might point out that a DVD of Coffee Prince won’t have been available to a North Korean way back in 1997, but the underlying truth is there: that South Korean TV dramas are an important way in which North Koreans have been finding out that their cousins in Seoul are not as impoverished as the State would have them believe. And the title of the drama helps set up a poignant contrast between the fantasy coffee shop in the drama and the reality that the couple find in Seoul.

Eun-mi (Anna Leong Brophy) begins to make it big in the movies
Eun-mi (Anna Leong Brophy) begins to make it big in the movies. Photo: Richard Lakos

The experience of escapees when they reach the promised land, whether that be America, South Korea or elsewhere, is a detail that Chappell’s play shares with Chung’s: for example the bewildering range of choice that is available, and the speed with which the money runs out. Chappell adds the experience of North Koreans who suffer discrimination and who are looked down upon by their Southern neighbours. Some of them miss the certainty of life in the North and contact with their family members.

Do not expect a fairytale ending, but do expect to leave the theatre well-satisfied. This is a play in which the human drama feels just right, even though the real-world setting is anything but. Highly recommended (as is the beer downstairs).

P’yongyang is at the Finborough Theatre until 30 January 2016.

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