Kip Williams helms British writer Lucy Kirkwood’s epic socio-political thriller, inspired by an incident from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre
With a cast of 32 and a geopolitical narrative, Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is the kind of play you don’t see often in Australia, where arts funding cuts mean we usually see plays of smaller cast sizes in smaller theatres, with less time to develop a work of true scale.
Chimerica, however, is big and sweeping – and unapologetically so.
The narrative follows an American photojournalist’s search for the near mythological ‘Tank Man’ (a lone figure immortalised in protest by this famous image from the Tiananmen Square massacre) 23 years after he first got the shot. At a higher level, it charts America’s relationship with China, and attempts a ‘psychological profile’ of post-Tiananmen China: a country in which oppressive state and military apparatus seem to operate in the service of Chinese military suppression, and the country’s rapid economic growth.
Pivoting between American and Chinese perspectives – and interjecting a British perspective, in the form of Tessa, a consumer research guru investigating the Chinese market on behalf of a credit card company – the play invites us to contemplate basic questions: what is the right side of history? What exactly is the good fight for human rights and human life? Who do we harm when we try to make a difference with our lives and work, and who is harmed by our inaction?
Joe (played here by Mark Leonard Winter) is the photographer on a mission; he and his journalist partner Mel (Brent Hill) are facing a near impossible task: there’s no proof that Tank Man is alive, beyond a half-formed suggestion by Joe’s friend in Beijing, Zhang Lin (Jason Chong). But Joe is undaunted: maybe, he and Mel say to their editor Frank (Tony Cogin), this is a story that America needs as it faces down the 2012 presidential election, where Republican nominee Mitt Romney stands poised to take office from Barack Obama.
Joe’s search takes him through Chinatown and greater New York, bumping against the precarious life of undocumented immigrants and experiencing the ramifications of living in a society that suppresses information. No one wants to talk about the events in Tiananmen, known as 6/4; in China, it’s illegal to do so (obfuscation is a matter of course). But Joe continues to ask more and more of his sources and informants. At some point, Joe becomes less of a crusader for freedom and democracy than a self-centred and emotionally stunted man who is burdening vulnerable people with his own unfinished business.
Zhang Lin too is searching for a hero, or at least some relief. His neighbour is dying – too young – from inhaling China’s dangerous smog, and he is trapped in stasis, haunted by the loss of his wife (Jenny Wu); he’s reminded of her every time he opens his fridge. He begins to reach out for Joe for help, but the photojournalist proves so myopic – it’s Tank Man or nothing – that Zhang Lin and his brother Zhang Wei (Anthony Brandon Wong) must save themselves.
Meanwhile Tessa (Geraldine Hakewill), who has worked for years to advance consumer spending and global corporate growth, is falling for Joe and beginning to discover the damage capitalist structures can cause for citizens. Her awakening is slow but timely – it won’t be long in the play’s timeline before a protest springs up in New York’s Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street creates a new vocabulary for the upcoming election that focuses on the inequality of the “one per cent.”
The cast is tireless and uniformly excellent. Joe must carry the play with energy and zeal, and Winter delivers; he is balanced against the more heartfelt, compassionate drive of Zhang Lin. This push-pull of perspective is the core upon which the fabric of the play rests. Hakewill adds gravity, curiosity and pragmatism as Tessa, and the professional ensemble – particularly the remarkable Monica Sayers and Gabrielle Chan – are no less impressive.
Williams is known for striking visual displays (he used live camera feeds in Suddenly Last Summer to enhance his staging, and has played with experimental set design for classics like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, both for STC), and for the most part employs this aesthetic to great success in this production. It’s an expansive, globe-trotting thriller and the designer, David Fleischer, embraces that sense of scale and space, concentrating action centre-stage with minimal props and decoration, reminding us of the world outside the moment. Renee Mulder’s costumes are detailed and keenly observed, clearly evoking character, time and place.
An ensemble of 21 NIDA students creates tableaux and sequences – screaming young people running from an attack, crowds gathered in protests – that convey the weight of the story and its reach across time and space.
On the other hand, a scene in which female student actors wear skimpy outfits and gyrate suggestively as strip club dancers, seems lazy and ethically dubious. For one thing, it leans into a clichéd narrative trope for thrillers – men get a nugget of information from a tough, jaded stripper – rather than finding a new directorial angle for the scene. Worse, it leans into a tendency for the performing arts to commodify and expose the bodies of women for little more than titillation. When the women in question are students without the safety of a payment agreement behind them, it’s particularly troubling. And for a play that highlights the struggles of undocumented immigrants, in a scene designed to show a woman’s struggle for employment, it seems tone deaf.
Still, it’s a tense and absorbing production with a generally good sense of conflicting cultures and motivations. You do feel every minute of its three-hour running time, though that isn’t always a negative thing; it’s a complex story and complex stories take time to tell.
It’s not surprising that Kirkwood is working on a television adaptation of her script, which will be set in 2016; Chimerica is compelling, purposeful, and deeply entertaining. Catch it in theatres before it becomes prestige TV that everyone wants to talk about.
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I loved the ambition of this, and the story set in China was truly moving. I also loved seeing such strong Asian-descent actors get proper stage time.
But the overload of cliches in the USA part of the story just killed it for me, making me feel like I was watching a long, made-for-tv movie. A few choice examples:
- Newspaper boss talks like an episode of The Newsroom, rails against the tyranny of the internet and wears braces.
- Disillusioned journalist is cynical, wisecracking, also alcoholic.
- Reporter follows a lead by going to a strip club and talks to an angry stripper.
- Man and woman have sex, break up and then accidentally run into each other nine months later. Woman is pregnant with man's child.
- Woman has revelation while in crucial moment at work, does a public monologue about the "truth", loses job but it's "worth it".
- Asian person (in this case - elderly Asian couple) make a sacrifice (deportation) to help white guy's personal journey move forward.
- Man is unapologetic for his art, regardless of what he's done to get it because art is "worth it".