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Review: The King of Hell’s Palace, at Hampstead Theatre

Powerful play about HIV human tragedy in China is based on the struggle of a public health doctor

19 September, 2019 — By Catherine Usher

Millicent Wong and Kok Hwalie in The King of Hell’s Palace. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

THE subject matter of The King of Hell’s Palace sounds rather clinical – the cross-contamination of blood-drawing and other procedures at profit-oriented plasma collection centres in 1990s China and the subsequent HIV epidemic.

But, of course, the play focuses on the very human tragedy the situation created, with entire families of impoverished farm-workers returning time and time again to give blood.

There’s a growing sense of horror as the farm-workers and villagers gradually become financial slaves to blood donation.

Their determination to make money is soul-destroying as they unwittingly become infected in order to buy a new blender or a pair of Nike Air.

Togo Igawa in The King of Hell’s Palace. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has based the story on the very real struggle of public health doctor Wang Shuping. In a culture of profit and expansion, Celeste Den’s Yin Yin is the only person with detailed knowledge of the risk and a moral conscience.

Her sense of frustration is palpable, especially when she encounters such entrenched misconceptions as “Aids is a Western disease”.

While Yin Yin tries to do the right thing, she is frequently thwarted by Millicent Wong’s nurse Jasmine, whose initially sweet, timid persona conceals her ruthless, dishonest core. The pair inhabit the roles with conviction, humanising a classic battle between good and evil.

Under Michael Boyd’s direction, there is a sense of pace and vibrancy throughout, but the scenes involving whistleblower Yin Yin are undeniably the most powerful. Den’s gripping performance is a highlight, bringing compassion and conviction to a courageous symbol of hope.

Until October 12
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