March 12, 2014

Should The Globe Theatre take Hamlet to North Korea?


The play's the thing?

The play’s the thing?

Earlier this week, Amnesty International criticized The Globe Theatre for planning to take its production of Hamlet to North Korea. Amnesty called for The Globe to read up on the country’s human rights abuses before deciding for sure to visit the country with the production. In a statement Amnesty said,

“No tragic play could come close to the misery that the 100,000 people trapped in the country’s prison camps endure – where torture, rape, starvation and execution are everyday occurrences…There’s a dark irony in the fact that Hamlet focuses on a prince wrestling with his conscience. Kim Jong-Un is no Hamlet. Sadly he shows no sign of wrestling with his conscience.”

The Globe has responded, noting that it intends to take the play to every country in the next two years to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, so it is not singling out North Korea to be provocative. But surely the move can’t help but provoke comment: Hamlet will be performed in one of the world’s most frightening dictatorships, where a young leader had his uncle killed, a man who had been one of the most powerful men in the state.

While it’s highly unlikely that Kim Jong Un will see The Globe’s performance, where he would essentially play a too-perfect part as an evil leader watching the character of an evil leader watch a play about the murder of a good leader (after all, “the play’s the thing/
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”), Mark Lawson argues in the Guardian that some good could still come out of the staging of the play.  Lawson notes that “the use of Shakespeare’s plays as a weapon against repression has an honourable history”, most often during Soviet rule of Eastern Europe.

When Prague was under the rule of Russia, the Czech author and philosopher Pavel Kohout ran a politically charged production of Macbeth, and the staging of this was later used as the basis for Tom Stoppard’s Cahoot’s Macbeth. Not only this, but PEN actively encouraged Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller to go to Turkey in 1985; “when the dramatists challenged the prevailing political climate so fiercely that they were ejected from a dinner at the US embassy.” And it’s not just Shakespeare that has been used as a kind of theatrical intervention. Susan Sontag’s staging of a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo made its mark in a city that was undergoing the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. Sontag went on to write about it for the New Yorker:

 “…I couldn’t again be just a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heart-breaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight. If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something.

No longer can a writer consider that the imperative task is to bring the news to the outside world. The news is out. Plenty of excellent foreign journalists (most of them in favor of intervention, as am I) have been reporting the lies and the slaughter since the beginning of the siege… I was not under the illusion that going to Sarajevo to direct a play would make me useful in the way I could be if I were a doctor or a water systems engineer. It would be a small contribution.”

Like Sontag, The Globe and its actors, directors and technicians cannot provide the kind of aid doctors or lawyers would supply to the victims of Kim Jong Un’s regime of terror; those prisoners Amnesty mentions will of course have no chance of seeing the play. But Sontag’s right, there are already excellent journalists, and organizations like Amnesty, covering and calling out the situation in North Korea. The news is out, but if The Globe can now direct this news back at North Korea’s citizens in a new way, in the hope that it may reach its rulers through means that catch them off guard, then it should do so. There may be some things a play can do, however small the contribution. As Hamlet instructs his players,


anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both

at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up

to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,

and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.