Hampstead Theatre, London – until 12 October 2019
Guest reviewer: Ben Dowell
The sudden spread of hepatitis and HIV in the Henan province of China in the 1990s, after blood plasma was collected for a global pharmaceutical company, is perhaps not widely known to Western audiences. Or not as widely known as it should be. Untold numbers of people were infected, and the courageous work of doctor Shuping Wang in unravelling the causes of the spread deserve praise. Perhaps not, however in the form of a two hour 35-minute play.
It’s certainly a cautionary, eye-opening tale. But how the sorry story is going to unfold becomes obvious within the first ten minutes of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play. An ambitious company, hungry to exploit the capitalist freedoms suddenly granted the Chinese people, is keen to harvest blood from the peasantry and sell the plasma. The ordinary people, with memories of a famine, are only too keen to oblige. Medical researcher Yin Yin (Celeste Den), who is married to an unambitious health ministry official, senses something wrong and gradually uncovers the scandal – while facing the inevitable threats from the authorities.
The story of corruption, greed, corner-cutting and the impact on the poor peasantry unfolds with depressing predictability. Corporate scandal is a subject that can make for energetic and compelling theatre, as anyone who has seen Lucy Prebble’s Enron will testify. But unfortunately, this is very, very, on the nose.
Director Michael Boyd does his best with the material and his stage is a busy and interesting place thanks to Tom Piper’s vibrant design work. A moving walkway is a particularly good device, serving multiple functions – including a motorway, onto which peasants are tempted to throw themselves into the paths of trucks in order to win compensation.
And there is some interesting work with flowers – the peasantry’s staple way of earning money before the lure of big business cash brings their world crashing down. But there’s little he can do with the sometimes robotic dialogue, in a play brimful of good intentions but with virtually no artistry or dramatic tension.
Den puts in a game turn as Yin Yin, and Christopher Goh is very affecting as her desperate, torn husband. But overall you cannot help but think that this story would be served better by a feature-length documentary, real life testimony and a clear narrative. This point was underscored on press night when Den welcomed on stage Shuping Wang herself – the doctor who in reality blew the whistle, and who remains under pressure from the Chinese authorities to withdraw her story. Wang seemed uncomfortable with the adulation and attention. But her story, factually told, would have been much more interesting and worthwhile.
hampsteadtheatre.com. To 12 October