The King of Hell’s Palace at Hampstead Theatre
Hampstead Theatre’s 60th anniversary also marks the start of Roxana Silbert’s tenure as its Artistic Director. She debuts with a bold production based on the true story of a woman who single-handedly exposed a blood contamination scandal in 1990s China. Dr Shuping Wang was researching Hepatitis when she was assigned a role at a plasma collection station. The number of these profit-driven stations was rapidly increasing and people from all over the country went to sell their blood, seeing it as an easy and viable shortcut to make an extra income. Dr Wang discovered that contaminated blood was spreading Hepatitis and the HIV virus, but when she exposed the alarming issue to the Ministry of Health, she met with a wall of hostility and lost her position. The potential financial loss and reputations at risk meant that the scandal was hushed.
Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig chose to give this story exposure in her two-act play The King of Hell’s Palace. The dramatised version sees infectious disease specialist Yin-Yin as the whistleblower at the centre of the storm, with her own brother-in-law involved in managing the plasma business. Yin-Yin’s social fight stunts her career progress and also puts a strain on her marriage, igniting a personal dilemma between prioritising her family commitments or her duty towards thousands of fellow humans. Meanwhile, a family of farmers starts to dream big when they discover the profits to be made through selling their plasma, but sadly their challenges are only magnified by the greedy scheme.
The number of factual details behind the drama makes this a difficult story to relate, and it does take a while for the action to warm up. Nevertheless, it gradually picks up pace and individual performances are generally effective. The action is aided by two conveyor belts facilitating the entrances and exits of characters and a brick wall that works for most scene changes. There are perhaps too many elements at play in the story to allow space for emotional depth, but this is a modern tragedy worth telling.
Photo: Ellie Kurttz
The King of Hell’s Palace is at Hampstead Theatre from 5th September until 12th October 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.