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The Theatreguide.London Review

The 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 cartoon.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The King Of Hell's Palace - Hampstead Theatre 2019