King Of Hell's Palace
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2019
In the years around 1990, the
West was coming to grips with the realisation that AIDS was not just a Gay
Plague. But China was deep in denial, refusing to acknowledge the
existence of the disease even as it was in the middle of one of the
deepest scandals of the era, the infection of hundreds of thousands of
Chinese through tainted blood transfusions.
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play
tells this story in standard docudrama form, educating us to the facts but
doing little to make them really come alive.
Cowhig's play rather
mechanically alternates scenes between two groups – the medical workers
who turn a local blood bank into a profitable business and the villagers
who are at first happy to get paid for what seems like nothing.
According to the play the blood business grows so quickly that the operators can't keep up with either supply or demand and soon begin cutting corners on testing the blood for hepatitis, HIV or even blood type.
There is simply too much
money and political advancement at stake to slow down, and the one
would-be whistle-blower among them is rapidly and brutally silenced.
Meanwhile, a quirk in the way
the Chinese (differently from the rest of the world) conducted the
blood-collecting meant that donors were as subject to infection as
recipients, and the peasants celebrating their new and easily-gained
affluence are soon suffering from an unknown (because it officially
doesn't exist) donor's plague.
This story is informative,
but why isn't it more involving or enraging? Part of the problem is
that Cowhig's characters are all single-dimensional stereotypes.
The peasants are all honest,
amiable, gods-fearing folk, so much alike that you will have difficulty
remembering which is which. The chief bad guy is so archetypically Greedy
Capitalist that he might come out of some clumsy Soviet propaganda
Only one character in the
whole play is allowed to grow and change, the innocent nurse of the
opening scene who leaps enthusiastically into participant and ultimately
leader of the money-grubbing camp – that is to say, from one stereotype to
another, with nothing in between.
Faced with these paper-thin
characters and mechanical plot structure, director Michael Boyd and the
hard-working actors (most doubling or tripling roles), can be excused for
not being able to bring any of them alive or make us really care.
A story that might have been told adequately in a short newspaper article gains far too little by being put on stage.
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Review - The King Of Hell's Palace - Hampstead Theatre 2019