‘The King of Hell’s Palace’ review
Time Out says
Roxana Silbert’s tenure at Hampstead Theatre kicks off with this epic drama about a hushed-up blood poisoning scandal in ‘90s China
In 1992, Dr Shuping Wang and her colleagues reported a hepatitis epidemic in the People’s Republic of China, discovered through batches of contaminated blood given by donors looking to make money through selling their plasma. In 1995, she discovered an HIV epidemic. When she reported her results to Beijing, the central government insisted that she falsify the results. Dr Wang refused, despite the dangers: she is now a US citizen who has never been able to return to China.
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play ‘The King of Hell’s Palace’ is inspired by Dr Wang’s story of courage, integrity and sacrifice. In this fictionalised retelling, infectious disease specialist Yin-Yin discovers that greed and negligence have allowed the spread of an epidemic. She fights to expose the truth while Jasmine, the young graduate nurse she helped find a job, climbs through the ranks of the Ministry of Health by increasingly ruthless means.
At the same time, a family of poor farmers and migrant workers believe they have hit on the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme by selling their plasma, only to fall victim to the Ministry of Health’s cavalier practices.
Under Michael Boyd’s direction, a grandiose, characterful script thundering with scenic explication becomes heavy-handed in its delivery, though the sheer drama of the second half handles the turbulent interpretation more successfully.
Millicent Wong, a resourceful actor, does her best to inject some humanity into the character of Jasmine, a one-dimensional villainous cypher whose comeuppance, depicting as it does an act of brutal violence, feels sordid.
Nevertheless, there are scenes of great poignancy and pain. Celeste Den is spellbinding as both whistleblower Yin-Yin and Luo Na, the peasant auntie who persuades her sister and sister’s family to sign up to plasma donations. Luo Na’s eventual fate, which might have been grotesque and overcooked in the hands of a lesser talent, is instead darkly upsetting and sets the tone for the rest of the play.
Though perhaps not perfectly structured or paced, ‘The King of Hell’s Palace’ – the first production in Roxana Silbert’s reign at Hampstead Theatre – dares to attempt the epic. It’s a work made with great ambition and great love.