Roxana Silbert begins her artistic directorship of Hampstead Theatre in an adventurous fashion, with the premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s complex, harrowing play. Ambitious in scope and scale, The King of Hell’s Palace shines a light on a tragic Chinese blood contamination scandal.
Celeste Den plays Yin Yin, a fictionalised version of courageous whistleblower Dr Wang Shuping, whose story inspired the play. An expert in infectious diseases, she becomes aware that dangerous shortcuts are being taken in the blood plasma collection scheme.
Set in Henan Province in the 1990s, the play shows how impoverished farming families were driven to sell their blood plasma for money. But pressures to make the process more efficient led to the blood being mixed, increasing the risk of contamination. Yin Yin discovers that some samples have been infected with HIV, but her warnings are ignored.
There are flashes of poignancy and poetry in the writing but the storytelling often feels heavy-handed, dumping information on the audience in ungainly ways.
Michael Boyd’s production too often paints in broad strokes – Millicent Wong’s shy nurse Jasmine morphs into a villainous manipulator in minutes. The cast of eight are all required to double up, and though they do so skilfully – there are some very quick changes – only Den avoids making caricatures of her two characters.
Despite the presence of twin moving walkways in the centre of Tom Piper’s set, the play moves in fits and starts, only gathering momentum towards the downbeat and moving ending.