Pah-La (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: April 9, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Abhishek Majumdar      Director: Debbie Hannan

⭐️⭐️💫

It is not often that a drama set in Tibet arrives in Sloane Square, which makes Indian-based writer Abhishek Majumdar’s new play an intriguing rarity. The Tibetan conflict, where Buddhist followers of the exiled Dalai Lama continue to oppose repressive Chinese rule, forms the backdrop to a play that begins in the style of a stirring action adventure, but tails off to become a muddled morality tale.

In a remote Buddhist monastery, novice nun Deshar is a rebel, at odds with both elderly monk Rinpoche (Kwong Loke) and her father Tsering (Richard Rees). Millicent Wong makes Deshar a spirited, strong willed heroine, even if the character’s motivation comes across as vague, and her chief adversary, Chinese Commander Deng is, as played by Daniel York Loh, a forceful, if stereotypical, villain. Deng’s mission is to re-educate Tibetans to accept Chinese ways and, effectively obliterate their own culture and traditions.

Performed on a traverse stage, the first half of director Debbie Hannan’s production taps into the mystery of the Orient. Strong lighting effects (designed by Jessica Hung Han Yun) throbbing music (composed by Tom Gibbons) and choreographed movement (directed by  Quang Kien Van) mark all of the many scene changes and inject excitement into the drama. The climax is a spectacular effect which must have given headaches to Health and Safety officers, but which certainly heats up the action.

Pyrotechnics are followed by a second act that is disappointingly flat and strains credibility to its limits. The action now switches to Lhasa, where Deng is faced with quelling unrest that springs from Deshar’s attempt at martyrdom. His loyalties are torn between family and state as his wife Jia (Tuyen Do) prepares to offer sexual favours in return for information relating to the whereabout of their daughter, feared missing at the hands of Tibetan rebels. In Act I, Hannan’s flourishes go a long way towards concealing poor character development, but here in Act II, the play’s shortcomings become exposed as over-acted melodrama is allowed to take over.

Majumdar expounds a key theme through Ling (Gabby Wong), one of Deng’s officers. She argues that the cause of all conflicts is not tribalism nor faith nor territorial ambition, but fathers, blaming everything on paternalism. This is not the first time that it has been suggested that women would do a better job of running the world than men, but, curiously, the writer does not make the case with very much conviction and Ling’s outburst feels like little more than a diversion.

The bitterness and frustration of a community threatened with extinction under an authoritarian regime are brought out well in the strongest parts of Majumdar’s play, but his storytelling wanders off course and becomes confused. Perhaps he is trying to say too much and, in so doing, says very little that is new at all.

Performance date: 8 April 2019

Photo: Helen Murray

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

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