The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Spring 2019
A lesson in recent Asian
history and an introduction to the mysteries and paradoxes of Buddhism,
this new play by Abhishek Majumdar is less successful in simple dramatic
Its characters are too often
types and mouthpieces rather than persons and its dialogue too often
speechifying rather than conversation.
When Chinese officials,
trying to strengthen China's dominance over Tibet, close and destroy a
Buddhist convent, one young nun symbolically rebels through a
This unexpectedly triggers
rioting and rebellion among the Tibetans, and the only solution the
Chinese can come up with is discrediting her by torturing a confession
that she was acting under orders of the exiled Dalai Lama.
The play is built on a string
of debates between Buddhism and secularism – a monk and the young nun, the
nun and a Chinese officer, the monk and the officer, and so on.
In just about every case the
Buddhist wins, through a mix of mystic parables, gnomic epigrams and just
plain glibness, to the extent that the audience can't help beginning to
wonder if there is much there beyond the rhetorical cleverness.
Meanwhile, attempts to
humanise the characters generally fall flat. The nun has side issues with
her father, while the officer is distracted by worry for his daughter
missing in the riots. The title, roughly equivalent to 'Papa', alludes to
both older men, to the fatherly monk and eventually to the religious and
secular patriarchies that generate violence and oppression.
And yes, toward the end of
the play a secondary character blames all the world's problems on
testosterone in a perhaps legitimate but unfortunately
feminist-jargon-riddled screed – yet another case of someone talking at,
rather than to another.
The production by director
Debbie Hannan and designer Lily Arnold is fast-moving and visually
impressive, and Millicent Wong as the young nun, Daniel York Loh as the
Chinese officer, and the rest of the cast do their best to create human
But as educational and occasionally thought-provoking as it may be, Pah-La never really comes alive.
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