London's Most Famous Theater Is Bringing 'Hamlet' to North Korea, As If That's Not Insane

The Globe Theatre is planning to perform Shakespeare's Hamlet in North Korea, and Amnesty International is not pleased. The performance will be part of the theater's ambitious plan to tour Hamlet "in every nation on earth" in a hope to expose as many people as possible to the famous Prince of Denmark. But the political reality of some of the countries on their list (notably, North Korea) is saddling the tour with a deserved, but presumably unexpected, controversy.

This project that the Globe company is setting out on, if completed, will bring Hamlet to every country in the world. The company plans to start in England on April 23, Shakespeare's 450th birthday. It will then take more than two years for Hamlet to hit all the countries on the map.

The Globe doesn't see the tour as controversial, but rather as illuminating and uniting. "Like all the best works of art," the organization stated in a press release, "Hamlet instigates discussion and dialogue, and like any theatre, we wish to play to, and interact with, as many people as we possibly can, in as diverse a range of locations as possible. We do not believe that anyone should be excluded from the chance to experience this play."

The tour is a project Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe's artistic director, has spoken passionately about for some time. Last summer, when he announced the plan — well before the company was rebuked by Amnesty International — he told the Guardian, "I think having a lunatic idea is a very good thing, it’s a great way to keep everybody focused and dazzled and delighted by the ambition and energy of the company. If we’re going to do every country in the world it has to be every country, we’re not going to leave anyone out. All the 'Stans, South and North Korea – we're very keen to get into North Korea. Antarctica? Fuck yes."

Amnesty International believes the company is ignoring the political reality for the sake of crossing North Korea off their new bucket list. The organization stated, "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."

Dromgoole's enthusiasm is admirable, presumably well-intentioned and maybe a little over the top. But bringing Hamlet to North Korea makes it seem as if North Korea is just a country like any other; it normalizes the brutal political situation there. It’s also unlikely that the North Korean government would allow the play to occur if they didn’t feel that they had something to gain from it, in this case positive attention from the international community. If there's art in North Korea, it can't be so bad. Right? 

Maybe the Globe should stick with Antarctica.

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Elias Leight

Elias Leight writes about music and books for the Atlantic, Paste, Splice Today, Firedoglake, and Popmatters. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.

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