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Review - Pah-La at the Royal Court

Pah-La is not only a provocative piece of theatre, but an impressive feat of research and the incarnation of the play's central theme. A protest of its own, the play's Royal Court debut was postponed in 2017 amid fears that this dramatisation of the 2008 Tibetan unrest would draw unwanted attention in China to the theatre's work there. But the time has come, and Abhishek Majumdar's script is as beautiful and devastating as we would expect.

Deshar has been a nun since she ran away from her father Tsering and lives in a nunnery in Lhasa under the guidance of the elderly monk Rinpoche. Working to impose Chinese rule in Tibet, Chinese Commander Deng arrives in Lhasa to enforce a programme of re-education for the young nuns. But Deshar renounces his ideas and violence and determines that she must make her voice heard by peaceful means, unwittingly starting a revolution. 

Pah-La packs a great many ideas, wisdom and symbolism into a mere two hours. The first act is the more textured, inspiring half of the play. It incorporates beautiful, terrifying dancing performed by the young nuns, which by candlelight is quite breath-taking, and the relationship between Deshar (Millicent Wong) and Pema (Zachary Hing) is a beautiful thread. Wong gives an arresting performance as Deshar, and manages to capture both the recklessness and purity of youth, her beautiful, soft features almost permanently steeled in defiance. Hing has the ability with his child's curiosity to melt Deshar's coldness, and the two share a touching moment together dreaming about what they might be when they grow up. The soft white light illuminates these two friends bathed in mist, transporting the audience to the moonlit hillside where they stand looking at the stars.

In the second act, the narrative turns to Deng (Daniel York Loh) and his wife Jia (Tuyen Do) who are searching for their daughter Liu, gone missing amongst the fighting between the Tibetans and the Han. Much is made of the parallel between Deng and Tsering, both seeking the safe return of their daughters. But like some of the play's structures, this feels self-consciously symbolic.

The play becomes increasingly reflective, and Majumdar's images and ideas so elaborate that his characters are like vessels for them, rather than being believable individuals with authentic relationships. Deng's assistant Ling (Gabby Wong), for example, makes a speech to her boss condemning the fathers of the world. It is an impressive piece of dialogue, but subverts the relationship between the two characters.

Majumdar also incorporates numerous parables into the script. Beautifully recounted, they provide oases of reflection amongst the action. But the more intricate of these can be hard to follow, and so the audience is kept at a remove.

Majumdar interviewed no less than 137 Tibetans in exile during his research for this play, and these voices hum as a steady bass note in this production. It is an important, educational play, though the essence of it occupies a philosophical space somewhat above the plot, at times alienating its audience. However, Debbie Hannan's direction has created a captivated aesthetic, and Millicent Wong gives such a stunning performance as to keep the audience totally invested in a tragically undertold story.

Pah-La is at the Royal Court until 27th April.

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