The King of Hell’s Palace

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Hampstead Theatre
Hampstead Theatre

Christopher Goh and Celeste Den Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Millicent Wong and Kok-Hwa Lie Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Togo Igawa, Celeste Den, Millicent Wong, Aidan Cheng, tuyen Do & Vincent Lai Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Rather than directing the first play to appear at Hampstead under her artistic directorship, Roxana Silbert has passed that honour to the distinguished former RSC supremo Michael Boyd who directs an intriguing play about the mysterious land of China.

What gives the impression of being a far-fetched parable about a repressive society is nothing of the kind. Instead, it is a work steeped in historical fact and based on the heroic activities of Dr Wang Shuping, who took an extremely embarrassed bow on stage at the end of the opening night performance.

Set in 1992, the staging is kept relatively simple by designer Tom Piper, although he introduces the clever concept of a double conveyor belt which maintains the pace throughout a 2½-hour performance and brings the audience right into the drama by feeding out along a catwalk between the front stalls.

The story itself seems barely credible but, sadly, reflects the callous behaviour of the Chinese government under the rule of Deng Xiaoping.

It centres on two families. In a city in Henan Province, two brothers played by Kok-Hwa Lie and Christopher Koh work to establish a successful business selling blood plasma.

Given that this is supposed to be Communist China, there is an irony in that their activities and all of the problems that result are the direct consequence of rampant capitalism in pursuit of Soviet-style targets that can never be achieved.

In their efforts to succeed, there is a need to cut corners, a policy egged on by a woman who in the opening scenes appears to be almost saintly, Millicent Wong playing Nurse Jasmine. In fact, given the opportunity, she turns out to be an arch schemer who is as keen to carry forward the state-sponsored business as her unprincipled boss.

The opposing view comes in the form of the impressive Celeste Den’s Dr Yin Yin, the figure based on Dr Wang Shuping. She is a noble doctor forced into working in the field of infectious disease and shocked to discover that the company is risking the lives of millions by reducing hygiene standards.

The members of the second family swiftly become peony-growing guinea pigs from the countryside after seeing an opportunity to become relatively rich through regular, paid blood donation.

What might have been no more than the cause of minor ill health becomes a rampant, fatal epidemic due to unfortunate timing.

This is the era when bad blood was killing millions across the globe due to the AIDS epidemic. While in the West this was largely known as the “gay plague” at the time, it could also have a devastating impact on anyone receiving infected blood transfusions.

The King of Hell’s Palace is a highly watchable but generally tragic play that sheds light on life in a country that remains a mystery to most of us in the West. It also presents an object and timely lesson about the way in which corporate greed can damage vast swathes of society.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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