Review: The King of Hell’s Palace, Hampstead Theatre
PUBLISHED: 11:45 13 September 2019
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s tale of a blood donor scandal in 90s China makes an ambitious thought-provoking start to new artistic director Roxana Silbert’s regime at Hampstead
The scandal of how contaminated blood products infected UK patients is the subject of an ongoing public inquiry, but Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's ambitious epic - a theatrically bold Hampstead Theatre debut for new artistic director Roxanna Silbert - reports another scandal.
In 90s China, the toxic combination of Capitalist imperatives and Communist politicking saw thousands of blood donors infected with HIV, before a brave whistleblower exposed it.
Cowhig embroils Celeste Den's feisty infectious disease specialist Yin Yin in a family up to their necks in harvesting plasma from peasant farmers who are only too happy to swap mining and subsistence farming for cash to buy food blenders and high-top trainers.
Everyone here is in within living memory of Mao's famines and brutal purges, and as her husband and in laws grow wealthy from selling 'liquid gold' for American make-up and medical supplies, the public health offical makes sure it's clean.
Ironically farmer blood is seen as uncontaminated - until greed leads to short-cuts and then a cover-up.
The harrowing effect on the Yang peasant family, dreaming of a better life growing peonies and sending clever Pei Pei to university, lies at the heart of the drama.
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Infected with AIDs, they hide their lesions with foundation and feign energy when Pei Pei comes home.
Their powerless anger against both the commercial exploiters and self-interested State, and desperate sense of family honour, leads to a rather downbeat conclusion.
Michael Boyd directs with verve and energy; a fine ensemble cast take multiple roles, and a travelator bisecting the audience keeps things moving tautly.
But the material is at times unwieldy with clashing styles, clumsy exposition and cartoonish characters.
A few more poetic moments and emotional heft would have helped, as Den tries valiantly to round out a moral saint who puts the greater good before her family.
From her marital banter to beating her husband around the head with the files that expose the scandal - before hopping on a flight to exile in America - Yin Yin is indeed a heroine for our times.
But it was when real life inspiration Dr Wang Shuping took an emotional bow, that really brought tears to the eyes.