BWW Review: THE KING OF HELL'S PALACE, Hampstead Theatre
It's been a week of new Artistic Directors kicking off their debut seasons. Lynette Linton smashed it out of the park with her gig-theatre epic revival of Chiaroscuro, Rachel O'Riordan's direction of Tanika Gupta's A Doll's House has gone down a treat, and now it's the turn of Hampstead Theatre boss Roxana Silbert to give an insight into what her tenure will be. Differing from those above, Silbert isn't directing her inaugural seasonal show, instead relying on the hand of Michael Boyd.
The play chosen is Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's controversial The King's of Hell's Palace - a piece that aims to reveal the corruption in 1990s China. There have been reports that Chinese officials attempted to prevent this play from being on the stage. Even the theatre's website was down on the day of its press night. A coincidence? Who knows? Regardless, it's thrilling to have this buzz surrounding a show before it even opens.
Based on the real whistleblowing story of Dr Wang Shuping and her colleagues, the play focuses on a blood contamination scandal, putting two narratives centre stage. The first is of infectious disease scientist Yin Yin, a woman who battles against family loyalty and her sense of moral duty. The second story is of a working-class family, who are duped into giving their blood in the hope for more money and a better life.
Set in Henan province, during the blood plasma collection shortcuts were taken and it leads to the widespread of HIV. Villages are infected, and they don't have the knowledge to understand what their illness is - instead they refer to it as "a fever". The background to this real-life narrative is very complex, and the play takes its time to explain it - sometimes to its detriment.
The writing is incredibly detailed, but the docudrama takes a long take time to really excite. Scenes are lengthy and Boyd's direction is lacking in pace. Whilst doing their best with what they've got, the actors at times seem unsure of themselves. Because of this, there's quite a few sloppy moments; lines are forgotten, the stage combat don't always go to plan, and the action doesn't excite.
The second half is much more active. We are exposed to the deceit of the Chinese officials, there's the heartbreak we feel when watching these characters suffer, and we are also treated to a gorgeous duologue between Yin Yin and her husband - which is played superbly by Celeste Den and Christopher Goh.
However, the writing presents these formidable figures as one-dimensional, making it difficult to connect with them and feel their struggle. The most impactful moment of the evening comes during the bow, where Dr Shuping is called on stage. There was a lot of love in the room for her, and, overcome with emotion, she had to turn away.
Photo: Ellie Kurtz