The King of Hell’s Palace at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

The King of Hell’s Palace

Hampstead Theatre, 17th September 2019

This was an interesting choice as the first production in Roxana Silbert’s inaugural season at the Hampstead Theatre. A play based on a true story about corruption scandal in China. From a US playwright, (who spent part of her childhood living in China), Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, with an established reputation: her play The World Of Extreme Happiness, which covers similar ground, and offers similar criticism as TKOHP, came to the National in 2013. Directed by veteran director Michael Boyd, (last here with Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide …., and on top form with Tamburlaine at the RSC last year). With a largely British East Asian cast, (though the one exception, US import Celeste Den, understandably attracted some ire given the paucity of BEA casting generally in UK theatre).

Yet the biggest surprise of all was just how clunky the play was. It is an ambitious story well worth telling, no doubt about that,. but to tell it Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig lays on the exposition with a veritable trowel. In the first half especially character after character is made to explain what is happening in momentum-throttling detail. Often for no good reason as it really isn’t that difficult to fathom what is going on. OK so maybe the multiple doubling, and more, of roles starts off as being a little confusing, and I guess part of the aim of the explanation is to delineate each character, but the main players quickly emerge. Ms Den plays Yin Yin, an expert in epidemiology at a Ministry of Health institute. Christopher Goh is her initially supportive, but ultimately pusillanimous, scientist husband Shen. Kok-Hwa Lie is his brother and Yin-Yin’s boss Kuan, who oversees the dastardly scheme, driven by avarice and Party loyalty, and Millicent Wong is Jasmine, the Lady Macbethian nurse who becomes his shameless sidekick.

This four also play members of the extended family of farmers, alongside Aidan Cheng, Tuyen Do, veteran actor Togo Igawa and Vincent Lai, which is destroyed by the get-rich-quick scandal. In 1989 blood plasma collection stations spring up rapidly in rural China to sell to local blood product companies. By 1992, when TKOHP begins, the practice has spread to Henan province with the samples eventually being exported to an unscrupulous US pharma company. Peasants and local officials are rapidly enriched. But this leads to the rapid spread of Hepatitis C and HIV infection. Even after the industry is regulated. Cover ups follow. The State finally admits to the extent of HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s. Even so another blood plasma and vaccine scandal erupts in early 2019. All this was documented by Dr Wang Shuping, on whom the character of Yin Yin is based, and who, like the character, was finally forced to flee China for the US. As you will surmise the good doctor, who I gather attended the emotional press night, is not especially well liked by the Chinese state who would rather the play disappeared.

Like I say good story with relevance beyond its setting. But to pack its many short scenes in to a couple of hours ex interval, required substantial inventiveness on the part of Michael Boyd, movement director Liz Ranken and the rest of the creative team, notably Colin Grenfell’s lighting. Entrances and exits come thick and fast from the central opening at the back of Tom Piper’s sparse set, from side doors and from either side of the stalls. This is accelerated by a cunning pair of moving walkways that run through the middle of the stage, and offer visual metaphor at crucial points. Myriad costume changes are largely achieved off stage and props carted on and off by the cast. It is a triumph of logistics but, along with the expository overload in dialogue described above, does rather come at the expense of character insight.

Even so, given the enthusiasm of the cast, the intricacy of the staging and as the true extent of the crime is laid bare in the second half, it is difficult not to be carried along by the narrative of greed. It isn’t Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (more of that soon – watch this space) but it is shocking and it does highlight Yin Yin’s bravery and the sacrifice she is prepared to make. And it is clearly written and made by people who care which counts for a lot.

The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Doctor

Almeida Theatre, 13th September 2019

He’s only gone and done it again. Robert Icke, the departing Associate Director at the Almeida, has ended on a high. Like that is any great surprise. Once again he has taken a classic text, this time Arthur Schnitzler’s dissection of anti-Semitism in pre WWI Vienna, and updated it for our contemporary age. Though to be fair it is a pretty good story even without the deconstruction and reconstruction. Yet by expanding the critique, and the central dilemma which underpins it, beyond religion and cultural identity and into gender and race, through both his adaptation and the casting, Mr Icke opens up a whole Pandora’s box of unresolved questions.

There are times when the clever dick nature of the project can irritate but, as I have said before, in the context of his Wild Duck on this stage, he is so, well, clever, that he gets away with it. His self professed aim is to clear away the fusty patina of performance history and get back to the roots of these often disturbing and radical plays. Professor Bernhardi fits the bill perfectly. But as well as bringing the play alive for a modern audience, and making them think, so hard that sometimes it hurts, Mr Icke also rarely fails to entertain us, ensuring the plot is as transparent as the message and the characters.

Of course we are fortunate that one of his favourite collaborators Juliet Stevenson was up for the central role of Doctor Ruth Wolff, an authority in Alzheimer’s disease, who heads up the Elizabeth Institute. She is a secular Jew who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is dedicated to her calling. She is however unable to prevent a 14 year old Catholic girl from dying who has been admitted to the hospital after a self-administered abortion. She refuses to allow a priest to see the girl just before she passes, a decision that splits her team and has repercussions, social media outrage, petitions and political debate, when it leaks to the outside world. The Institute’s funding is threatened and Dr Wolf is forced to choose between her principles and self sacrifice.

This plot sticks fairly closely to Schnitzler’s original but divisions within the Institute, and outside, open up along gender and racial lines, as well as between Catholic and Jew. This is made more striking as we see that the cast largely plays characters which do not “fit” our perception of their identity and are not identified by name in the programme. Even after you grasp this central conceit it can still surprise, notably when we discover the priest is black. We see how medical ethics are shaped by professional and public opinion, and economics, and how identity, and the language which defines and contains it, can be co-opted for personal and political gain.

Naomi Wirthner is outstanding as the deputy plotting to oust Ruth, accurately capturing male entitlement. Paul Higgins plays the passionate priest with an agenda and Ria Zmitrowicz is once again captivating as the young transgender friend that Ruth inadvertently betrays. Pamela Nomvete and Oliver Alvin-Wilson, as Ruth’s loyal colleagues are pitted against Daniel Rabin, Mariah Louca and, eventually, Kirsty Rider who all see warped principle and pragmatic advantage, in turning against her. All this takes place against the clinical, fluid set design of Hildegard Bechtler, never black or white but shades of grey, with lighting and sound from Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons to match. And a live drumming performance from Hannah Ledwidge which serves to discomfort and ratchet up the tension.

If all this sound too tricksy, or woke-y, well it isn’t. Juliet Stevenson brilliantly portrays Ruth as some-one who is right, but hard to like, obdurate and emotionally naive. Her final monologue is shattering, played in conjunction with Joy Richardson, her lost partner, “Charlie”. RI keeps pulling us into arguments that simultaneously assert the inviolability of identity and the strictures and contradictions it can impose. The dichotomy between “freedom to” and “freedom from” as my old history teacher taught me all those years ago. The scene where the sceptical Ruth is interrogated for a TV show “Take the Debate” is the most acute satire of identity politics. And all this is done with sacrificing any momentum in the story: quite the reverse, the near 3 hours just bombs along.

The religious schism which informs the original play just about survives the expansion (primarily through the “right to life” debate which the unseen girl’s abortion precipitates), and there will be some for whom all this subversion detracts from the plot but the Tourist, once again, was awed by Mr Icke’s theatrical genius. I am signed up for his next outing with ITA in Amsterdam based on The Doll’s House and I see his version of Chekhov’s Ivanov is currently pulling then in in Stuttgart. I hope we see him back in Blighty soon though too, ideally having another pop at the Greeks, or maybe some Marlowe or Webster.

No great surprise to learn that this is transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre from April next year. If you didn’t catch it at the Almeida here’s your shot at redemption.