The King of Hell’s Palace at the Hampstead Theatre: Praiseworthy but Inconsistent
Credit must be given to Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig for writing The King of Hell’s Palace and bringing it to the stage. Depicting the true events of a blood contamination scandal that left thousands of Chinese peasants from the Hanan province in the 1990s diagnosed with HIV, Cowhig’s determination and research is commendable, and the national story she tells is utterly horrifying.
After an older generation suffered through a famine, when the opportunity for peasants to sell their blood plasma to earn extra money arises, entire villages sign up. When Dr Wang Shuping, a specialist in contagious diseases, realises the blood is contaminated she tries to stop the programme, but the wheels of business are already in place and the company overcommitting to meet targets for pharmaceutical companies. The King of Hell’s Palace follows Dr Shuping’s story and that of a family of villagers who try to forge a better life for themselves.
Tom Piper’s set design never allows audiences to forget the sordid and illegal nature of the medical risk. An open courtyard adds a noticeably downtrodden feel to the play, implying a space where all manner of illicit trades are made. Here the blood money has life-threatening possibilities, and despite the family’s constant attempts to fantasise about what their future will be like, their actual background means it is impossible to ignore their current situation. The play cycles through a variety of locations, including a medical facility, a karaoke bar, streets, the homes of both central families and with little props, with two treadmills bringing these on. This works well for the most part, though does become somewhat repetitive.
Whilst the writing is often poetic, especially playing with the motif of selling one’s ‘life force’, it is also slow. The first half is keen to place all the jigsaw pieces in place, but does so at the expense of a rather clunky and disparate pace. Scenes can be over lengthy and are tonally bizarre. Only in the second half, once the board is set, does the play take off. Michael Boyd’s direction also seems not to have mined the full potential of the actors on stage, who often felt unsteady, with some dialogue mistakes and fight choreography especially looking unnatural.
Celeste Den is very good as Dr Shuping and there are tentative glimpses from the entire cast of a strong ensemble performance. Yet, in its current form, The King of Hell’s Palace doesn’t quite achieve everything it wants to. There were reports from before the play opened that Chinese officials had been trying to prevent the play from being staged, and there is no doubt this reveals a dark moment in the country’s history. For that, Cowhig deserves our praise.
The King of Hell’s Palace is at the Hampstead Theatre until 12th October.
Photograph credit: Ellie Kurttz