Chimerica

Chimerica‘Chimerica’ by Lucy Kirkwood at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, by the Headlong Tour company

19th August 2013

“We see only what we know” (Goethe)

Chimerica’s  quizzical title -an amalgam of China and America – from the historian Niall Ferguson, is a new play by Lucy Kirkwood. The play, a magnificent achievement of its six year evolution, only slimly surpasses Lucy Prebble’s ‘ Enron’ – a reminder of the exciting new female talent in the country.

Chimerica begins with the iconic image of the Chinese protester/ the ‘Tank Man’, armed only with two shopping bags, stopping the might of an oppressive institution, symbolised by his stand before a phalanx of tanks.  This is captured by the photojournalist, Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore), an American then aged 19, who just happens to have the perfect view from his Beijing hotel window of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Years later, the fictional quest to find the Tank Man drives the deceptively simple narrative to achieve a transition from the opportune photo moment to the ramifications of Jo’s personal reckless pursuit.

There is so much to savour in this Headlong production. Notably, much of the unexpected humour and bitter satire is provided by  Mel Stanwyck, (played by Sean Gilder),Schofield’s journalistic partner.  In contrast, much love-hate-marmite indulgence resides in Trevor Cooper’s reality check in the role of their newspaper editor.

Tessa Kendrick (Claudie Blakey) is an Englishwoman doing market research concerning American and Chinese consumers .  As well as becoming a casualty of her relationship with Schofield,  her astute business presentation leaves us in no doubt of the cultural misconceptions in customer profiling that there’s ‘no such thing as an individual’.

The power of an image is adeptly reinforced by Es Devlin’s innovative, revolving white cube set with superimposed logos, slogans, video film and location shots that transcends time.  The result also creates seamless scenes which are so fast paced, and, at times, barely digestible. Yet, it  is also a cerebral reminder that numerous issues inform this deceptively simple narrative.

As a result,  so many themes are covered in three hours that it may have been more satisfying to have explored fewer in depth. At times, the comparative shift of press freedom in New York and journalistic ethics in Beijing seem oversimplified though the audience does find itself snagged into reflections on heroism and the ethics of photojournalism. So when Schofield’s seemingly benevolent, Beijing contact, the Zhang Lin’s   exposes the story about the deadly levels of the Beijing air pollution, he becomes the Everyman who needs to be silenced. Lin’s humanity is layered with a parallel reflective dip into the past: his relationship with his young wife who adds an uncomfortable magical realism whilst still preparing us for the play’s darker climax.

Without giving too much away of the closing moments of the play, ‘Chimerica’ certainly concludes that perfect observation comes from knowledge and that empowerment lies with the audience. The past not only comes to haunt Lin and Schofield but our initial assumptions at the start of Act One. As one character says, `Vietnam was lost in the sitting rooms of America’.

A well-deserved transfer from the Almeida Theatre to the Harold Pinter Theatre.

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Headlong Theatre is one of the leading UK touring theatre companies and an arts charity, funded by Arts Council England since 1974. The company is dedicated to new ways of making theatre, aiming constantly to push the imaginative boundaries of the stage. Under the Artistic Directorship of Rupert Goold (Olivier Award winner for Best Director, 2008 and 2010), the company collaborates with the most exciting and adventurous theatre-artists in the country, providing them with the time, resources and creative support to make their most challenging work.