Romeo and Juliet meets The Manchurian Candidate Pyonyang is a heart-breaking tale of forbidden love between two young people growing up in Communist North Korea under the tyranny of Kim Ill-Sung in the 1980s and 90s.
It’s the second play by Verity Bargate Award winning playwright In-Sook Chappell currently debuting at the Finborough Theatre directed by Chelsea Walker. The setting within a surreal grey cardboard communist world created by Max Dorey is aptly brutalist and claustrophobic. Chi Soo (Chris Lew Kum Hoi) and Eun-Mi (Anna Leong Brophy) are innocent young North Koreans who have been brainwashed since birth into adoration of their Great Leader and protected from the harsh reality of life in the communist state by their loving parents. When the pair meet as teenagers they start to fall for each other. They dream of living together in the capital Pyongyang and making it as movie stars but dark clouds are gathering that neither could have predicted.
For Eun-Mi her dream becomes a reality when she wins a scholarship at an exclusive acting school but Chi-Soo’s world is devastated when he learns his father is a war criminal and that he is doomed to a life little better than slavery as a coal-miner.
Chappell’s ambitious plot spans three decades and deftly incorporates the tumultuous history of North Korea with a focus on one story amongst millions of people whose lives were destroyed by the cruelties of the totalitarian regime, the fear of the gulag and the horror of famine. Not only is the story achingly sad at points it is also strangely life-affirming in others as she perceptively shows how people can endure terrible situations with dignity and fortitude. She never sugar coats the reality of the facts behind her tale however but rather creates moment after moment of intense emotional power as her protagonists fight against overwhelming odds to be together.
Leong Brophy and Lew Kum Hoi should be particularly praised for their heartfelt, intelligent performances. Leong Brophy effortlessly transforms from an innocent school girl to a beautiful actress who is manipulated and used sexually by Kim Ill-sung in return for stardom. The glamorous but damaged girl who returns home to meet the broken Chi Soo is a far cry from the idealistic geeky girl who ran away to Pyongyang. Lew Kum-Hoi similarly morphs from an arrogant and good looking school boy with the world at his feet to the dirty, physically tired man who has to bury his parents and eat the flesh off dead bodies to survive in the midst of famine. He is completely charming as the idealistic young man who survives terrible hardship to find hope in the love of his childhood sweetheart. The actors carry the audience to emotional heights as they work with the script’s building tension, keeping us guessing and desiring that the pair will get the happiness they deserve. Daniel York and Lourdes Faberes also deserve a mention for holding the varying strands of the play together with effortless multiple characterisation.
The two protagonists have fantastic, natural chemistry as they are drawn together despite the very great danger they find themselves in. As their world gets darker and they fall in love will they ever be able to escape and find a better life outside?