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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Pah-La
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, trying to strengthen China's dominance over Tibet, close and destroy a Buddhist convent, one young nun symbolically rebels through a self-endangering act.

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 characters.

But as educational and occasionally thought-provoking as it may be, Pah-La never really comes alive.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Pah-La - Royal Court Theatre 2019
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