Kit Brookman’s new play, A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il, appears to be a charming, absurdist work about the covert appropriation of a colony of gigantic German rabbits by a North Korean emissary. But it is actually based on a bizarre, but true story.
The brilliant opening scene sets the tone of a comic thriller – funny and scary in equal parts. Johann, the German breeder of prize winning giant rabbits (Steve Rodgers) has agreed to sell a couple of his rabbits to North Korea in order to set up a breeding program to help with their famine. When the North Korean military goon, Mr Chung (Kaeng Chan) arrives to collect them however, things quickly turn nasty. A gun is drawn, a suitcase full of cash is thrown at the hapless Johann, threats are made and the rabbits are whisked away, leaving Johann humiliated, terrified and enraged.
The subsequent scenes don’t maintain the excitement of the opening and there is a distinct change of pace and tone, replacing the thriller element with a more whimsical mode. Director Lee Lewis nevertheless keeps a tight hold on the increasingly comic arc of the production, easily shifting gears between the whimsical, the absurd, the frantic and the touching.
Johann and his friend Sophie, the pet shop owner (who is actually an undercover CIA agent) played by Kate Box, travel to North Korea to retrieve the rabbits and discover the dastardly truth about how they will be used as part of the Dear Leader’s birthday celebrations.
Once there, the two bumbling chums meet up with Mr Chung and his boss, Ms Park Chun-Hei (Meme Thorne) and are plunged into the the absurd world of North Korea in which Chung and Chun-Hei are ruthless but tragic puppets of the state – brainwashed and powerless. There are a few moments that don’t gel in this part of the play, but nothing that a judicious tweeking over the course of the production wouldn’t fix.
A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il may be a play about a group of stolen rabbits, but in this production the playwright, Kit Brookman’s performance of Felix the rabbit steals the show. I’m so glad that he reluctantly agreed to play the role of this serene and enlightened rabbit as his understated performance, ripe with irony, is magnetic. He serves as the perfect counterpoint to Rodgers’ wonderfully sweaty, desperate and pitiful performance as Johann and Kate Box’s high energy, cartoonish CIA spy, who provides the mad cap humour in the play.
This play has much in common with Adam Johnson’s brilliantly terrifying black comic novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, in the way Brookman depicts the hermetically sealed, Stalinist world of North Korea as Kafkaesque, although Brookman’s play is not nearly as trenchant or horrifying. This is a far lighter, gentler work that exploits the bizarre social and political world view of North Korea for comic effect. But Brookman also raises questions about the moral compass of his Western characters. Steve Rodgers’ character, Johann is the embodiment of the North Korean view of Western decadence: he is weak willed, sentimental, lazy, greedy and undisciplined.
In the end, it is the Rabbit that has the last word, leaving us wondering whether we, in the West, are really so much better.
Griffin Theatre Company presents
A Rabbit for Kim Jong-il
by Kit Brookman
Director Lee Lewis
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre | 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross NSW
Dates: 17 October – 21 November 2015
Tickets: $55 – $20
Bookings: 02 9361 3817 | www.griffintheatre.com.au