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.
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
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
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.
story is informative, but why isn't it more involving or
enraging? Part of the problem is that Cowhig's characters are all
The peasants are all
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
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
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
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