The Globe Theatre's ebullient artistic director Dominic Dromgoole may have gone a step too far with plans for Shakespeare's 450th birthday.
A planned two-year global tour of "Hamlet" to mark the Bard's jubilee in April 2014 is to take in 250 countries, including stand-out venues like the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, where human life has its origins, and the Antarctic, presumably to highlight Shakespeare's universal significance. Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark, where the play is set, is another stop on the itinerary of touring productions.
North Korea, however, seems a more eccentric choice of venue. Dromgoole told the Guardian it was a matter of completeness. "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," he said. "All the 'Stans, South and North Korea -- we're very keen to get into North Korea."
Parallels do exist, since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, like a present-day Hamlet, recently executed his uncle Jang Song-taek on trumped-up charges, though it is doubtful whether he shared the moral agonies of Shakespeare's hero.
The play begins with Hamlet visited by the ghost of his dead father, who accuses Hamlet's uncle Claudius of murdering the king and usurping the throne. The ghost exhorts Hamlet to avenge him, and much of the play’s four-plus-hour running time is taken up by Hamlet's prevarications.
"To tour or not to tour -- that may well be the question the Globe Theatre will have to ponder after the company sparked a furious response from human rights groups by announcing it will stage a production of 'Hamlet' in North Korea," the Daily Mail wrote. "The irony was not lost on critics, who were quick to point out the sinister similarities between Prince Hamlet's murderous revenge on his uncle Claudius in the Shakespearean tragedy."
But human rights groups like Amnesty International were unconvinced that the performance will appeal to Kim's conscience. Niall Couper of Amnesty International U.K. told the Sunday Express that the regime is more likely to use the glitzy event for propaganda purposes.
Couper pointed out that Hamlet anguish about revenge contrasts starkly with Kim's ruthless certainty.
"North Korea is a country where the horrors inflicted on people who fall out of favour are worse than any fiction. 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."
But Dromgoole insists the Globe Theatre has sought advice from the British Embassy in North Korea and merely aims at global reach.
The Globe Theatre is a speculative reconstruction of Shakespeare's main theater, which opened in 1599 but burned down in 1613. Rebuilt in 1614, it was closed when improved theatre designs made it obsolete in 1642.
In 1997 work started on the reconstruction which, despite reliance on daylight and awkward conditions requiring most of the audience to stand, has proved a huge success. Productions try to stay faithful to historical performance styles, sometimes using men to play the female parts as they would have done in Shakespeare's company.