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 terms.
Its characters are too
often types and
mouthpieces rather than persons and its dialogue too often
speechifying rather than conversation.
When Chinese officials,
to strengthen China's dominance over Tibet, close and destroy a
Buddhist convent, one young nun symbolically rebels through a
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
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
But as educational and occasionally thought-provoking as it may be, Pah-La never really comes alive.
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