Camera surveillance of the Potala square in Lhasa is  immense. Tibet, January 2011 (Photo: Erik Törner, IMs bildarkiv)

Camera surveillance of the Potala square in Lhasa is immense. Tibet, January 2011 (Photo: Erik Törner, IMs bildarkiv)

Image by Erik Törner

Daniel Nelson

Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar makes it clear where his sympathies lie in the controversy over Tibet’s status.

While researching his play about the 2008 Lhasa uprising, Pah-La (now at the Royal Court Theatre in London), his 10-minute meeting with the Dalai Lama turned into an hour.

He was impressed with the Tibetan spiritual leader. “Thank you for your grace,” he writes in the printed edition of his play, “your love, your blessings and for telling me that I should take care of myself. I cannot believe in a god but I believe I sat next to the closest possible approximation of the idea.”

He says the Dalai Lama told him: “Write fearlessly. You know I am not God.’”

Majumdar needs little encouragement for outspokennesss. His previous work includes a trilogy on the Kashmir crisis and a play about Hindu nationalism in India, and his next will look at the many meanings of the Qur'an ("Right now, nobody wants to touch it," he told The Guardian newspaper.)

Pah-La also provoked controversy when the Royal Court halted plans to stage it, reportedly after China's intervention and out of fear that the theatre's activities in China might be curtailed. Complaints about the lack of Tibetan actors added to the mix.

But integrity prevailed, though Chinese embassy officials will certainly not be happy with the play's sympathetic treatment of Tibetans' cultural and religious independence and unflattering depictions of China's tough political and security line in the province.

The dialogue constantly pits Buddhist philosophy ("If we become violent, we lose everything") against Chinese communist party materialism ("How much is this Buddha statue for? What is the damage to the common taxpayer, such as myself?") But there are bursts of action, too, including torture, murder and an eruption of fire that leaves the audience, seated on two sides of a runway stage, with hot faces.

The characters are constantly in contention: soldier against monk, father against daughter, student against authority, activist against pacifist, husband against wife, Han Chinese against Tibetan.

Ultimately, character development is crowded out by events and the exposition of ideas, and the final showdown, involving life-and-death lie detector confrontations, heads towards Grand Guignol territory. Nevertheless, when it comes to theatrical ambition over- is better than under-

So hats off to writer, actors, theatre and stage staff for an intense,  bold, spirited, thought-provoking production -  and, in Majumder’s words, “the many who cannot be named. Several Tibetan and Chinese workers, prisoners, students, teachers, mothers, fathers, monks, nuns, policemen, university professors, laborers, musicians, artists, who cannot be named for purposes of security. Without you this play could not have been made. This play is yours.”

·      Pah-La is at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, SW1, until 27 April; £20-£25.  Info: 7565 5000


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