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.

Tamburlaine at the RSC Swan Theatre review ****

Tamburlaine

Swan Theatre, RSC Stratford, 17th November 2018

If you scroll down you will see a so-called review of the play Switzerland. Though focussed on the author Patricia Highsmith it referenced her most famous character Tom Ripley. One of the most beguiling bad boys in fictional history. However he was a novice compared to Kit Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Assuming you accept that Tamburlaine is, by and large, fictional, even if he is supposed to be based on Amir Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty in the C14 and ruler of vast swathes of Eurasia and defeater of the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans and the Sultan of Delhi. Self-proclaimed inheritor of the legacy of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire two centuries earlier, self-titled “Sword of Islam” and possibly responsible for the death of 5% of the world’s population. His descendants went on to rule much of Central Asia and found the Mughal Dynasty in India.

Now Marlowe being Marlowe, (I’ve banged on before about just how transgressive he was), and, I am guessing, not armed with much in the way of solid facts, it will have been the dramatic potential in Timur’s rise from obscurity (not true) to ruler of a huge chunk of the known world – now southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and even easternmost China – that drew him in. Remember the “real” Tamburlaine came knocking on the door of western Europe, in the process nullifying the Ottoman “threat”, he destroyed the renegade Church of the East and he had diplomatic dealings with France and notably Castile. So he was an ambivalent figure in Renaissance Europe by the time Marlowe came to write his doorstopper in 1587/88, aged just 23. But he was also exotic and bloodthirsty, a combination guaranteed to pull the punters in to the Southwark playhouses.

And it certainly succeeded. Along with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine revolutionised the English stage and laid down the building blocks for the great tragedies of the Jacobean period including those of you know who (clue WS). Thrilling plots, complex themes and richly imagined, evocative blank verse. All of which is still apparent today as this production made abundantly clear. Now that isn’t to say that Marlowe didn’t go on a bit, the original is in two parts and you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours if you watched them back to back. And the language, in keeping with the action, is not what you would call understated. But when cut back for modern tastes, and toned down, it is impossible not to be swept along by the epic events, the OTT posturing and the ostentatious language.

Michael Boyd’s production doesn’t attempt to dilute the drama. Tom Piper’s set may be minimalist in design and intent but when required, cages, platforms, pits, it really delivers. The costumes may be standard issue generic every-age militaria albeit with a twist, a bit of sheepskin here, some leather gloves there, white flowing robes for the whiff of the Asiatic/Oriental, but they are, to use the dreadful contemporary idiom, on point. The themes emerge in an entirely extemporary way: Marlowe the atheist’s dismissal of all religions, his celebration of, and warning against, the rise of the “individual” against the levers of power, the rise of the populist strongman, the creation of Empire, the threats and opportunities wrought by globalisation and exchange.

For this, the episodic tale of Tamburlaine’s violent journey, is, at its heart, a hyped-up history play. There are some remarkable theatrical devices on show from the masterly Mr Boyd and the creative team to bring this to life (and death). The painting on of stage blood, with bucket and brush, for each victim, first by young Callapine (here Dev Prabhakar), the murdered son of the Turkish emperor Bajazeth (a supreme Sagar I M Arya), and then an older version played by Rosy McEwen after her previous character Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s beloved wife. had died. The “ghosts” live on then, on the fringes of the action, underlining  the price that is paid for Tamburlaine’s power grab. Callapine comes back to seek, but not take, revenge. Whilst the cage in which Tamburlaine imprisons Bajazeth, and on which he and then his wife Zanina (Debbie Korley) (spoiler alert), dash out their brains, is integral to the play it still presents a startling image when it first appears, as does Tamburlaine’s chariot, pulled by his enslaved enemies.

The platform at the back of the stage, and that which descends from the ceiling, are barely more than the maintenance men might employ at your office, but, when some soon to be vanquished unfortunate uses it to lord it over Tamburlaine and his generals, you are struck by the simplicity of the symbolism. A plastic curtain lends the air of an abattoir, undeniably apposite. Even something as innocuous as Bajazeth pronouncing Tamburlaine’s name in a Somerset, (it must be so as we Devonians are sophisticates), accent, mocking the Scythian shepherd’s upbringing, has resonance. This, BTW, is Marlowe’s chosen origin story for Tamburlaine, a long way from reality in fact and time.

All these touches (have I mentioned the tongue?) are reinforced by a muscular score from composer James Jones and complimentary sound and lighting from Claire Windsor and Colin Grenfell (who bathes the Swan thrust stage in a golden glow, gold being the dominant tone of the text). Much was made of Evelyn Glennie’s percussive score for Troilus and Cressida (which I saw through RSC live), which, like Gregory Doran’s production overall, was only a qualified success. Here the sound and score was spot on. 

The production also succeeds because the cast are fully committed. Jude Owusu, in his first major role, belts it out of the park, heads out, picks the ball up, and belts it out again. He is so, so good. And he does it without succumbing to shouty histrionics: he is just well hard from the moment we first meet him. Hard to believe this was the same man who played Charles Darnay in the execrable Tale of Two Cities at Regents Park (though he was the best thing in it). I was much taken with the way David Rubin and Riad Richie painstakingly built out the characters of Techelles and Usumcasane, Tamburlaine’s two lifelong sidekicks. Rosy McEwen was an ethereal Zenocrate, the daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, who Tamburlaine abducts, but with whom she eventually falls in love. 

Mark Hadfield, as he usually does, stood out as the Soldan, as Mycetes, the King of Persia, the first to underestimate Tamburlaine’s military skill, and as Almeda, Callapine’s keeper. His comic timing, for there is comedy amongst the carnage, is superb. Who else? David Sturzaker, who amazingly played Cosroe, Mycetes’s treacherous brother, the King of Fez, then in part 2, Sigismund, King of Hungary and finally the Governor of Babylon (whose inhabitants are all drowned), James Tucker similarly takes on the roles of Meander, Mycetes’s adviser (channeling his inner accountant), the Governor of Damascus, who doesn’t have much a plan to assuage Tamburlaine’s wrath, the Lord of Bohemia, and Perdicas, a wheedling lawyer. Raj Bajaj, notably as Tamburlaine’s insufficiently macho son Calyphas, Salman Akhtar, Ralph Davis, James Clyde, Ross Green, Zainab Hasan, Debbie Korley and Vivienne Smith also take on multiple roles. Edmund Wiseman, who is excellent as Theridamas, does not, only because he, wisely it turns out, defects to Tamburlaine right at the start and sticks with him. 

There is an excellent programme note from voice and text coach Alison Bomber describing how she encouraged the actors to “connect voice, body and imagination” to bring Marlowe’s text to contemporary life, to bring light and shade, to vary the rhythm of the knotty language, so that the verse feels like speech to us. In this she and the cast succeeded admirably. As you can tell a lot happens even in the cut-down version of Tamburlaine. He and his mates get about a bit and come across, and invariably kill, a lot of people, as you have probably surmised from the above. A quick speed-read of a synopsis, as always for Renaissance plays, never does any harm, but I have to say, even with all the multiple casting and olde-worlde talking, this really is a breeze to follow. 

I get that Marlowe, and for different reasons, Jonson, are destined always to lurk in Shakespeare’s shadow, but with a production as good as this it leaves me wanting more. And wishing the poor chap, Marlowe, that is, had stayed away from Deptford that night.