This tweet was on my mind while I was watching Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play. Its bluntness gets to the heart of it: it’s an insult that such extreme wealth exists while others suffer and have to sell their own blood just to get by.
Cowhig achieves similar juxtaposition in The King of Hell’s Palace by following two groups. One is the Chinese public health officials who ran a campaign in 1990s Henan Province, encourage people to sell blood plasma to an American pharmaceutical company. The other is a family of farmers attracted by the programme’s promise of escaping poverty by participating. All the characters are scared shitless: scared of being caught, of slipping back into past horrors, for the fates of their children.
The play has eight actors (all multi-roling) and two and a half hours, and could still do with more of each: Cowhig is an admirer of Tony Kushner, and this vast subject feels equal to his kind of lengthy epic. It’d be more satisfying to see Jasmine (a poised Millicent Wong) go less promptly from nurse to conniving co-operator of the donation system, to tease out details for the farmer characters, and to really soak up the almost unbelievable political and humanitarian mess of this story.
Appropriately, stage blood abounds, at one point staining a bunch of peonies given to Yin Yin (Celeste Den), the health official who draws attention to the fact that HIV-contaminated blood banks are spreading HIV amongst rural donors. They’re held out by one of the villagers she knows will likely die, who’s asking her to do something, when she’s sure she can’t.
She takes the flowers carefully, avoiding the bloody stems.
Those responsible for this mess only show an awareness of their own bodies and their bodies’ potential for labour towards the end, when things begin to look a bit hairy. Jasmine and her husband Wang Wei (Kok-Hwa Lie) argue politely over which of them must be seen to be arrested to smooth things over in the public eye. Suddenly it matters that she is in a “female body” – for their baby. They could always hire a wet nurse, he points out.
Tom Piper’s design makes the Hampstead’s stage into a brick-walled courtyard, badly swept at the edges and unglamorous. Twin conveyor belts on a walkway into the audience sweep a sofa or actors on and off, making for a good sad moment at the end, but I wonder if it’s worth the distracting noise for those seated close to it. Frequent karaoke and spirited breaking into song gradually leaks away into Nicola Chang’s barer, darker sound design of thudding drum, piercing whistle, rushing traffic.
The company’s exuberance in the first half (what’s more cheerful than the prospect of making money?) is replaced by sores and guilty sweat in the second. The family of farmers are only entirely harmonious when trying to hide the seriousness of their illness from young Pei-Pei (Wong), for the sake of her study. Cowhig’s language becomes aphorism-heavy when with these characters: “If you can’t be a rock, go cry in the fields.”
Shen, Yin Yin’s husband (Christopher Goh) only seems to see this family, devastated by his and his brother’s slashing of corners in the name of profit, once. He watches, stricken, their pain as they quietly organise welcoming Pei-Pei. He helps hand a boy some shoes, then transforms into their postman. It’s a little heavy-handed, maybe, but it’s also a welcome leaning on the thin boundaries between these two removed groups. The horror collapses the distance. Michael Boyd’s direction can otherwise sometimes struggle with the massive balancing of the greed and politicking of one side with the bodily desperation of the other.
Outside the play itself, this production is an eye-catching start to Roxana Silbert’s tenure as artistic director of the Hampstead; Chinese officials have apparently made efforts to have it suppressed. Separately, British East Asians in Theatre and Screen (BEATS) raised concern over the casting of Den, an Asian-American actor, over British East Asian actors, and the choice of Boyd, a white man, as director.
These conversations only arise and become so fraught because the pickings are so slim in terms of East Asian theatre stuff (roles/shows/positions, you name it), even in London. This doesn’t begin with The King of Hell’s Palace, and nor will it end with it. And everyone is more than aware of this. But god, is change slow.
On press night, Den holds her hands to end the applause and brings out Dr Wang Shuping, the real whistleblower: she raised the alarm, losing her job and risking so much. You can read her account of what happened in this essay, included in the Hampstead’s programme for this production.
Dr Wang comes up onto the stage, looking very uncomfortable. She has tears in her eyes as she bows a bit, and now I’m crying too. It’s so strange to me suddenly; to have told this version of a chapter of a person’s life and then bring her up in front of London’s theatreland people, people clapping (for her or for the production? Do we even know why we’re clapping?) and then drinking champagne in plastic flutes out in the foyer. This kind of thing happens all the time, and I don’t know why I’m abruptly angry and glad at once. Having her there pierced to the heart of things, in the same way as that tweet about selling plasma did. Bluntly. And without presuming to know how Dr Wang feels, I’m interested as to how The King of Hell’s Palace plays to an audience without her appearance.
The King of Hell’s Palace is on at Hampstead Theatre until 12th October. More info and tickets here.