Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Theatre review: Pah-La

In the grand tradition of student activism (or at least in the tradition of talking about it,) when I was at university one of the student union spaces was called the Free Tibet Room. That was in the 1990s, and I wonder if it’s since been renamed to reflect a more recently popular cause; if people have forgotten about Tibet and its struggle to regain independence from China, Abhishek Majumdar is here to remind them with Pah-La, a play inspired by real events during the 2008 Lhasa riots. The title is a Tibetan word for “father,” and teenager Deshar (Millicent Wong) has gone against the wishes of her own to become a Buddhist nun, studying at a local temple. When Chinese police chief Deng (Daniel York Loh) leads a force to “re-educate” the nuns to the five principles of the Motherland’s supremacy over Tibet, Deshar’s Buddhist principles of non-violence are tested.

When the re-education fails Deng ups the ante, having the nunnery destroyed and replaced with a hospital; Deshar’s response is carefully thought-out but shocking.

It’s a plot SPOILER ALERT but one it’s hard to talk about the play without mentioning, that Deshar douses herself in petrol and sets herself on fire in protest (marked by Lily Arnold’s set providing the kind of coup de théâtre that’s all the more striking for being in an intimate space.) But she survives and, covered in burns, she becomes a figurehead for a wave of anti-Chinese violence; Deng is assigned to interrogate her in the hope that she’ll point the finger at the Dalai Lama for ordering her actions and the ensuing violence. But it’s the softer touch of his assistant Ling (Gabby Wong) that’s likely to get to the truth.

There are a lot of positives in Majumdar’s play and Debbie Hannan’s intense production – its first act is marked by a lot of defiance as the head monk Rinpoche (Kwong Loke) and his students fight back, intellectually if not physically, against Deng’s propaganda; nuns run up and down the stage in the scene changes, keeping up the energy. Things turn much darker for the second act after Deshar’s protest, and there’s some of the most genuinely harrowing scenes I’ve seen on stage for a long time, both in the badly-burnt Deshar’s physical pain, and the emotional pain of Deng’s wife Jia (Tuyen Do) as she searches for her own daughter, whose school was attacked in the wave of retaliatory violence. Deng’s own failings as a father come into focus here, as his duties for the government stop him from paying attention to his daughter’s disappearance until it’s too late.

As is perhaps not unsurprising in a play set largely among Buddhist scholars, there’s a lot of pontificating, and there’s a varied quality to the rather grand proclamations in the dialogue – at worst they come across as pretentious but there’s the odd line that’s positively Shakespearean in its scope and quotability. With “father” as the play’s title a confrontation between two of them becomes inevitable, and it would perhaps have been more effective if Majumdar had built up the character of Deshar’s father more – by the time Deng confronts him Tsering (Richard Rees) has been off stage for over an hour. The polygraph “game” that forms the story’s climax is also a bit confusing– there were so many double negatives in some of the questions I was no longer sure what anyone was confirming or denying. But the ambition of the play’s undeniable, and even if the scope he’s tried to cover sometimes trips the playwright up there’s a lot that’s striking about Pah-La.

Pah-La by Abhishek Majumdar is booking until the 27th of April at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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