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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Debbie Hannan directs and Lily Arnold designs with a fire display. Lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun, with sound and compositions by Tom Gibbons. Sydney Florence designs costumes that cunningly elaborate, with movement direction in a small space by Quag Kien Van.



Pah-La is ‘father’ in Tibetan and patriarchy as Chinese policewoman Ling points out, is the trouble. What takes her to that bitter epiphany literally consumes Tibetans and Han Chinese alike in Abhishek Majumdar’s play, based on real events in Tibet in 2008.


Its central character embodies paradox: a Buddhist nun schooled in non-violence who’d kick her way out of a Jackie Chan movie, and revel in it. And it’s incendiary. Literally and very.


Directed by Debbie Hannan Pah-La follows the literal spark leading to these events, where Millicent Wong’s Deshar has abandoned her family to become a Tibetan nun. Her fellow nun Dorjee (Tuyen Do) upbraids Deshar for not only breaking a Chinese soldier’s jaw and stealing his jacket, but ‘plucking out’ a third molar only to be told: ‘a hanging tooth is very painful’.


Deshar’s mastery of rhetoric is what takes her out and back into trouble with everyone. It’s ultimately herself she’s at war with, though male authority is painfully oppressive. Perhaps it doesn’t help that her father Tsering (Richard Rees) is the local Tibetan teacher at the monastery, decrying the loss of language, or that despite his edicts Deshar still influences her 12-year-old shepherd brother Pema (Zacahry Hing). Pema plays at career options of astronaut and train driver, but by the end of the play he’s on course to be as well-versed in Buddhist paradox as his sister.


To counter this, Kwong Loke’s Rinpoche does his best to protect Deshar from men and from herself. It’s a strong believable performance – Rinpoche is tough-minded and as Chinese Inspector Deng (Danile York Loh) arrives to quiz the monastery out of existence eyeballs Deng: ‘Happiness? … You and I have the same job.’ Deng presses: ‘Do you agree (with) the the five pillars (of re-education)?’ ‘Too many nouns unfortunately. My entire training is in verbs.’ Rinpoche isn’t above nationalist jibes either. ‘This is a school of philosophy… not a shop in downtown Bejing. There is going to be no bargain.’


Loh’s Deng is a worthy foil, though, and his humanity painfully increases later. His riposte to Rinpoche and nationalist Tsering stings: ‘You are unsure whether you are here or not but you are absolutely sure that Tibet is yours.’ And he sets Buddhist riddles of his own about a blacksmith for Deshar to answer.


The monastery’s closed with extreme prejudice, Deshar’s dispatched along the railway lines she and her brother spied and she embarks on a fateful though not fatal act. It’s spectacular.


Lily Arnold’s mesmerizingly simple set – two arches at each end of a travers stage with occasional temple effects, a dull red floor and props comes with a spectacular fire display, parallel bars running round the set’s open rectangle, inches from audience and actors. Later come torturing lie-detector machines where people are strapped in, and water can be flung in a face. There’s other liquids elsewhere.


Lit evocatively with blackouts by Jessica Hung Han Yun, sound and composition by Tom Gibbons bears distant but respectful homage to Tibetan music. Sydney Florence designs costumes that cunningly elaborate as the play proceeds. Movement in a small space directed by Quag Kien Van consists of much running up and down the traverse, and heel-spinning. There’s nothing static about this production, though it evokes stillness.


It’s difficult to top the first act’s thrilling disputation; so Majumbmdar resorts to fiendish plotting with new characters, as a bandaged Deshar is hauled in by Deng and Gabby Wong’s Ling. Despite herself, Ling empathises with Deshar’s plight, though too rapidly to be wholly believable. Nevertheless some of the tenderest moments come when Ling’s cleansing Deshar’s wincing wounds.


Do now takes the part of Jia, Deng’s wife, based in colonial privilege in Lhasa. Distraught at their daughter’s disappearance and Deng’s party caution over looking for her, she rounds on him shredding loyalt from the inside. Perhaps the most authentic exchanges occur between her and Loke who returns as a man with walking stick. Jia graphically offers sex in return for news of her school-age daughter Liu’s whereabouts: they end up talking, Loke offers a kind of streetwise quietism. Do makes the glamorous older party woman vocally distinct from nun Dorjee. Her journey to acceptance through seething fury traces a passionate burn-out. Parallels between Deshar and Liu are perhaps slickly realised, but it works theatrically. It’s not where true improbabilities lie.


At the same time Deng’s increasing obsession with Deshar’s stance and her father’s recalcitrant nationalism has them both brought in to a dialectic showdown with sudden reversals and gambits out of an intellectual thriller; again the hypothetical blacksmith, again the rhetorical overreach. Added to which we get a superb (if premature) speech from Wong’s Ling about the wrongs of fathers. Though it’s not a short play at two hours five, more material is needed to convince us of this. Paul Chan’s Constable Gaphel too pointedly turns on Deng, though he’s shown Tibetan loyalty from the beginning.


There is though a biting, humanizing climax with a haunting epilogue. Having tackled Kashmir before, Majumdar hews out a terrible yet thrilling flight of ideas smashed into dictat; it finds great agency. Millicent Wong is exceptional as Deshar, Loh as Deng, as are Loke, Do, and Rees – who’s commandingly angry embodying learning like Hugh in Friel’s Translations. Gabby Wong too describes an over-telescoped journey with conviction.


In this drama of ideas, we’re witness to superb sketches of people, with three or four showing some complexity. It’s not a play showing inwardness, despite the Buddhism or because of it. It’s not meant to be.


Even if there are slightly over-determined elements in the second act, this is still a stunning play; anomalies pale in comparison with the searing arc of a drama based on true events. It’s the kind of drama we need, and see too rarely.