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.