Greed, capitalism, censorship, and love are just some of the many themes the prolific young playwright Lucy Kirkwood touches upon in Chimerica currently on at the Almeida Theatre. It is a powerful work about a fictionalized American photographer’s search for the “Tank Man” who was infamously photographed with his shopping bags in 1989 during the short lived protests in Tienanmen Square.
Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) is the journo who snapped the famous shot and is now in the midst of covering the 2012 US Presidential election. The hot issues being debated this time round are the American jobs being sent to China and cheap labour. Joe finds out that his mysterious “Tank Man” might be living in the states and starts his search. Meanwhile his old friend and adamant smog protester, Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong) is back in Beijing and tells Joe about his neighbour’s death due to the city’s toxic air leading him to be tortured by the police and confronting many haunting memories of his past. What ensues is an intercontinental drama of loss, friendship, love affairs and a surprising resolution.
“Chimerica” was first coined by British historian Niall Ferguson and Economist Moritz Schularick to mean the mutual relationship that has formed between the two major world super powers today; China and America. Kirkwood was fascinated by the idea of the former super power passing the baton to the new super power in the never ending global geopolitical triathlon. Also the idea of who the man is in that picture intrigued her as well and in a recent piece in the Metro, she said she ‘was fascinated by those unexpected consequences of censorship.’ The play looks at how we Westerners are observing China’s rapid paced transformation into an economic super power and accurately conveys the dizzying, whirlwind changes that are taking place there.
Along with the Headlong Theatre Company and Designer Es Devlin, Director Lyndsey Turner managed to stage a 3 hour play which transports the audience from the famous aforementioned Beijing Square, a Beijing apartment, inside a transcontinental economic class cabin to the streets of New York , NYC’s Chinatown and all around various flower shops in Queens. Turner said in an interview with the BBC’s Front Row, that there are nearly 28 different locations. She along with the rest of the team embraced the challenge fully and solved the issue cleverly, by creating a giant white cube with secret doors, that blend into whatever scenic image is projected on to the outer walls so that the door could lead to a Beijing flat or it could be the facade of a Chinatown fishmonger. It’s brilliantly done and moves the story along with bumping hyperactive electronic music as the soundtrack.
The outstanding cast also helped move the narrative along and I was in their grasp for the entirety of the show. Benedict Wong played Zhang Lin absolutely wonderfully with just the right amount of subtlety and emotion. I found Claudie Blakley’s vulnerability as Tessa Kendrick , the English Marketing researcher and Joe’s lover, to be mesmerizing especially in her speech where she genuinely starts to doubt the work she’s invested so much time into. Sean Gilder as Moore’s colleague at the paper was particularly hilarious as was Trevor Cooper in his role as the old-fashioned newspaper editor.
Lucy Kirkwood has been and is one playwright to watch. This play is as entertaining as an any action flick at your local cinema but it will have you laughing throughout and will leave you ruminating about some major global issues. It’s not Fast and Furious 6 but I guarantee it will be just as fun.
Until 6 July at The Almeida Theatre, Islington Box office 020-7359 4404