A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il review (Griffin Theatre, Sydney)

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Kit Brookman’s new play A Rabbit from Kim Jong-Il was inspired by a true story which proves the overused adage — “truth is stranger than fiction” — is, well, true.

In late 2006 the despotic and eccentric supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il took an interest in a group of giant rabbits bred by a German farmer. Through his agents, the leader bought several of the rabbits from the farmer to establish a “breeding program” to boost meat production and help solve the country’s food production crisis.

But the relationship between the North Koreans and the farmer broke down soon after the sale and the farmer believed that his giant rabbits were killed and eaten at a feast for the supreme leader’s birthday celebrations.

Brookman takes this as his premise and then extends the tale into the heart of North Korea, with our farmer Johann (Steve Rodgers) taking off on a quest to save his rabbits and bring them back home. He’s assisted by his neighbour Sofie (Kate Box) as he negotiates his way through an unusual and dangerously screwed up nation, with the Kim Jong-il’s mysterious staffers Park Chun-hei (Meme Thorne) and Chung Dae-hyun (Kaeng Chan).

The play is billed as a “comic thriller”, but it mostly falls between the gaps of the two genres. It’s occasionally very funny — Brookman skilfully exploits the absurdities of the North Korean system for comedic potential — but the stakes are somehow never high enough to make this a completely engrossing piece of theatre. There are also echoes of the 2014 Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview, which sees two Westerners enter North Korea and discover the state’s horrors and hilarity (although this really isn’t a bad thing).

Director Lee Lewis almost manages to balance all the disparate elements, but, even under her assured hand, the jokes diminish the potentially chilling dramatic impact rather than enhance it.

This identity crisis extends to Elizabeth Gadsby’s set, which is made up of an angular platform, which doesn’t seem to serve much purpose, and a row of seats. On the other hand, Steve Francis’s compositions and sound design hits the sweet spot between the quirkiness and insidious danger.

There are certainly moments where this very personal tale about a man and his rabbits raises broader questions about notions of trust, integrity and the actions of governments and dictators. There are a series of almighty betrayals throughout the play, but the emotional fallout too often gets lost amongst the laughs and plot twists, despite Lewis and her cast’s best efforts.

Steve Rodgers is outstanding as Johann — an everyman pushed to his absolute limits — while Meme Thorne is hilarious and perfectly creepy as the authoritative bureaucrat with a surprising amount of affection for her dear leader. Kate Box is magnificent as Sofie, the young woman who works at a pet food shop, but is more than what she seems, while Kaeng Chan does his best as a character whose arc never entirely makes sense.

And Brookman appears in his own play as the rabbit Felix, bringing a simple and sweet sincerity to the role. As an actor he’s very endearing, and as a writer he has given the audience enough for a brisk and entertaining 100 minutes, even if the full potential of this play is never entirely realised.

A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il is at the Griffin Theatre, Sydney until November 21. Featured image by Brett Boardman

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