Benedict Wong (Zhang Lin)
Andrew Leung (Young Zhang Lin) and Elizabeth Chan (Liuli) in Chimerica at the Almeida.
Stephen Campbell Moore (Joe)
Claudie Blakley (Tessa)
Benedict Wong (Zhang Lin) in Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre.
Trevor Cooper in Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre.
In ancient Greek myth, a ‘chimera’ was a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head and a serpent’s tail. In Lucy Kirkwood’s new drama, ‘Chimerica’ is something bigger and scarier than that.
The word was originally coined by historian Niall Ferguson to describe the globally dominant co-dependent relationship between trigger-happy spendthrift America and control-freak money-grabbing China.
This is a thoughtful, complex portrait of New York photojournalist Joe Schofield’s search for the subject of his most iconic picture: a lone Chinese protestor who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5 1989. Here, Chimerica is a fragile web of shifting human relationships, which are sometimes severed by corporate greed, state cruelty, or individual selfishness, but achieve moments of connection which transcend their inhospitable environment.
This is the play of the year so far, and it marks Kirkwood’s graduation from exciting young talent to major writer. It’s staged with a film-like fluidity and flair by brilliant director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin inside a spinning cube, whose sides open to reveal the squalid Beijing flat of Zhang Lin, Joe’s kindly Beijing contact and friend, and the office of his genial, morally compromised New York newspaper editor. But the only things that are black and white here are Joe’s photographs of China, which are projected all over the set as newspaper contact sheets, crossed out or reframed by the editor’s red pen – a subtle reminder that a photograph is an opinion, not a simple record of the truth.
Transferring from the smaller Almeida theatre, the production suffers from the lack of intimacy. West End theatres were built like megaphones for heroic tour-de-force performances and extroverted productions – not this subtle, voyeuristic play-without-heroes, which you have to peer into to appreciate. Scene-by-scene, it’s got the originality, intelligence, richness and humour that we’ve come to expect from the best HBO dramas. But it doesn’t always have their entertainment factor, and sometimes lacks the thrills that you need to keep you on the edge of your seat for over three hours.
Actors Stephen Campbell Moore (selfish, idealistic photographer, Joe), Claudie Blakley (the corporate market researcher who Joe falls for) and Benedict Wong (as Zhang Lin, the private hero of the piece) make the three central characters unforgettable.
They are fictional, but their circumstances are not. And this complex portrait, inspired by a real photograph, sends you out into the night with much more to think about than you had before.
By Caroline McGinn