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 Great Wave at the National Theatre review ****

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The Great Wave

National Theatre, 24th Mar 2018

Now theatre can do a lot of things. Delve deep into the psychology of characters and shed light on the human condition. Convey a passionate and heartfelt message. Put poetry into the mouths of actors. Dispense shock and awe through sound, light and material. And, of course, tell stories. And sometimes those stories are so fascinating that the rest can take a back seat. So it is with The Great Wave.

Japanese/Northern Irish playwright Francis Turnly has alighted on an absolute belter of a story to tell in his play and he doesn’t let anything get in the way of its telling. Bolshie Hanako, (a performance of great breadth from Kirsty Rider given Hanako has to hide her true feelings for much of the play and age 25 years), is winding up swotty sister Reiko, (Kae Alexander who is rapidly turning into one of my favourite young actors), and putative boyfriend Tetsuo, (Leo Wan, last seen by me in Yellow Earth’s stripped down version of Tamburlaine the Great). She flounces off in a huff to the beach near where they live on a stormy night and disappears. Mum Etsuko (Rosalind Chao), Reiko and Tetsuo won’t accept that she was swept out to sea and  won’t give up on the search for her, badgering police chief Takeshi (who initially suspects Tetsuo), and eventually government minister Jiro, (both played by David Yip,) to find the truth. It transpires that Hanako has been abducted by the North Korean regime so she can train spy Jung Sun (Tuyen Do) to pass as Japanese all under the watchful eye of an Official, (a marvellous turn by Kwong Loke). And there’s more, involving smart performances from Vincent Lai and Frances Mayli McCann.

This really happened, to a handful of Japanese citizens, as you may or not know. That would be enough maybe in itself. Where Mr Turnley is really clever is drawing out the human dramas at the centre of this thriller and, gently, pointing out the political accommodations that allowed it to persist from 1979, before finally, unravelling. in 2002. He also, again without taking a sledgehammer to proceedings, shows how the histories of Japan and Korea are intertwined and paralleled to some degree. Finally, and maybe most importantly, he asks us how identity and self is actually constructed. Why did Hanako “co-operate”? Why do Jung Sun and the Official believe in, and do, what they do? How was this allowed to happen? I won’t answer as there are a few more performances left (grab a ticket) but, rest assured, you will get wrapped up in the journey. You will also, if you are an old softie like me, actually be quite moved at points. And you will, as you should, reflect on today’s geo-politics.

Tom Piper’s set, a simple revolve with uncluttered, but still authentic, cube rooms, means the episodic structure of the play, jumping between Japan and North Korea, flows without interruption. The sound design of Alexander Caplan’s stealthily kicks in to good effect as well. There are some occasions where the economy of Mr Turnley’s prose becomes a little clunky but this can be forgiven as it gets us from A to B quickly, which frankly, with a story this good, is what you want.

With a powerful story, simply told, the last thing you need is a director over-egging the souffle, as it were. Indhu Rubasingham was never going to do that. What she does do though, so deftly you barely notice, is put the right people in the right place at the right time to highlight the emotion of the story. That takes real skill. When she gets her own theatre back, (the Tricycle), after all the investment, expect fireworks.

BD, being a Japano- and Koreano- phile, was never going to be allowed to miss this. Not quite as difficult to please as her mother when it comes to the theatre, she is still a stern critic. Didn’t move a muscle from start to finish. And I am rewarded with multiple future credits.

So a real-life thriller that, like the set it is set upon, revolves around and around until it becomes something more surprisingly profound. I suppose the fine British East Asian cast could have been afforded more lines to show off their class, and bring full complexity to their characters, but, if so, this may well have clocked in at well over 3 hours, and the suspense dissipated. Like I say, sometimes the story is so good it just needs telling.