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Pah-La review at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London – ‘intriguing but unfocused’

The cast of Pah-La. Photo: Helen Murray The cast of Pah-La. Photo: Helen Murray
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This drama about political protest in Chinese-oppressed Tibet, written by the Bangalore-based playwright Abhishek Majumdar, has had a difficult journey to the stage. Originally scheduled to premiere at the Royal Court last year, it was delayed to avoid inflaming relations with China and jeopardising other new-writing projects with Chinese artists. There was further controversy over the casting process, which failed to assemble a company that included a single Tibetan actor.

Majumdar is known to UK audiences for his earlier, Kashmir-set work The Djinns of Eidgah, seen at the Royal Court in 2013. For Pah-La (Father), he undertook rigorous, lengthy research and there can be no doubt of the passion and conviction that inform the results. Yet, while it intrigues and sometimes startles, the play is frustratingly slippery and, for all its underlying complexity, strangely slender. The political context is only lightly sketched, and the characters and relationships are so lacking in dramatic texture that a story that should grip and horrify never really achieves sufficient traction.

The aesthetic is one of elegant symmetry set against chaos and shocking brutality, the peaceful generosity of Buddhist philosophy contrasted with the violence of the 2008 uprising in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Debbie Hannan’s traverse staging, designed by Lily Arnold, features a pair of stone archways, and the play is full of mirrorings. Mao Zedong, whose portrait gazes down on scenes of torture and interrogation, is the patriarchal figurehead raised in opposition to Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, the pivot of the action is the fate of two daughters: Deshar, a rebellious Buddhist nun who has fled the home of her dictatorial teacher father, and Liu, whose father Deng, the Chinese commander in Lhasa, has gone missing since the outbreak of unrest.

There is richly fascinating potential in the set-up, but Majumdar doesn’t seem fully in control of his material. Nothing ever quite shifts into focus, and the dialogue’s detours into musings and parable are meandering and over-deliberate. Millicent Wong gives a resolute, gutsy and intelligent performance as Deshar, who in a desperate effort to reconcile her impulse to protest with her faith’s adherence to non-violence, commits a terrible act of self-immolation. That moment, realised by Hannan’s staging with blinding, blazing power and a subsequent, agonising polygraph test of the appallingly injured Deshar, sees the play flash fully into life.

There’s fine work, too, from Daniel York Loh as the menacing but anguished, disintegrating Deng, and from Gabby Wong as his mutinous officer. It’s a shame that the vividness and tension those scenes generate isn’t sustained elsewhere. As it is, this is less a play of resounding political impact, than of tantalising possibility.

Meet the man who brought through a generation of playwrights at the Royal Court

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Intriguing but unfocused drama about the politics of protest in Tibet