Watching Hamlet In Pyongyang

Human rights groups have criticized the Globe Theater for planning to take a touring production to North Korea:

The Globe will perform the play in the secretive state in September 2015 as part of a global tour marking the 450th anniversary of the English playwright’s birth. “We do not believe that anyone should be excluded from the chance to experience this play,” the theatre said in a statement.

But Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said exclusion would be the order of the day if the performance went ahead in Pyongyang. “It’s going to be an extremely limited, elite audience that would see a production in any case,” Robertson told AFP on Tuesday. “It would have to be in Pyongyang, which is a showcase city whose residents are selected to live there because they have shown their loyalty,” Robertson said. “So there’s a strict pre-selection process involved right from the off.”… Amnesty International urged the theatre to “read up” on the reality of North Korea before going there. “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,” Amnesty said in a statement.

Mark Lawson thinks the Globe should go ahead with the tour, arguing that North Korea is not apartheid-era South Africa:

The obvious reference point in any discussion about which stamps actors should have on their passports is the boycott of South Africa by the theatrical union Equity and other representatives of the entertainment industry, which ran from 1965 until the Mandela presidency. … [T]here was a solid logic to the embargo on exporting drama to South Africa. The plays would be performed in venues operating a policy of segregation, with the result that touring productions participated in and legitimized apartheid. The governments during the discriminatory years also strictly censored the sort of material that was admitted.

Hateful as the North Korean regime is, the situation is significantly different. The Globe will presumably have no control over the makeup of the audience, but the choice of play is its own, and the use of Shakespeare’s plays as a weapon against repression has an honorable history.

Zeljka Marosevic looks back at that “honorable history”:

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.

Meanwhile, Tierney Sneed marvels at how dramatically attitudes toward cultural diplomacy have changed in less than 10 years:

In 2008, the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang upon invitation from the North Korean government amid US efforts to engage North Korea in nuclear weapons talks. When the Philharmonic agreed to play in 2007, a George W. Bush administration official defended the trip – which the State Department helped to coordinate – calling it a sign that “North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell,” and that it represented “a shift in how they view us, and it’s the sort of shift that can be helpful as we go forward in nuclear weapons negotiations.” PBS even broadcast the concert.

However attitudes toward North Korea have changed since Kim Jong Un took over upon his father Kim Jong Il’s 2011 death, says Sheila Smith, a senior fellow in Asia studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. “There’s now an increasing hesitancy to allow informal arts diplomacy between [North Korea] and other countries” she says, as the regime under Kim Jong Un has engaged in increasingly provocative behavior. … “It can actually run the risk of enhancing a regime that is guilty of oppression,” Smith says.