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Pah-La review – Royal Court

An odd thing about this play: it gave me nightmares. That’s never happened before in all my decades of going to the theatre.

I have a vague recollection of feeling trapped in a place under threat, which makes sense when you consider the events that take place in Abhishek Majumdar’s new play.

Based on real stories during the unrest in the Tibetan capital Lhasa in 2008, the story focuses on two characters.

The first is a sparky young Buddhist nun called Deshar (Millicent Wong) who, when we first meet her, has just elbowed a Chinese soldier in the face and stolen his uniform, as well as one of his teeth.

The second is Chinese Commander Deng (Daniel York Loh), who has arrived to enforce a programme of “re-education”.

Events at the nunnery take a destructive turn, and Deshar carries out a shocking act of defiance.

*Spoiler alert*

Photo:: Helen Murray


Her self-immolation is superbly handled. The audience sat in stunned silence as the lights went up for the interval.

Pah-La – Tibetan for “father” – explores many themes: violence, non-violence, father-daughter relationships, and an individual’s relationship with the state.

In the stronger first act, director Debbie Hannan builds a strong sense of atmosphere, particularly in the nunnery scenes where a giant Buddha statue glows in candlelight.

The second act, however, starts to sag under the weight of too many ideological speeches. The interrogation scenes involving a horribly burned Deshar aren’t an easy watch. They may well have contributed to my nightmare.

But Pah-La explores unfamiliar places and ideas that make it feel a fresh and exciting piece of theatre.

Pah-La is at the Royal Court until 27 April