Already a hit at the Almeida theatre, Chimerica arrives in the West End on the back of much acclaim and fanfare. It deserves that for its ambition alone.
That it achieves everything it sets out to is as remarkable as the famous image that inspires the story, that of a lone man blocking the way of advancing tanks in Tiananmen Square.
This latest play by rising star Lucy Kirkwood is a mystery, a thriller, a love story, an exploration of obsession, of heroism, of dreams, of oppression, of power, of control and of the ability of one moment in time to utterly dominate a life.
Its story begins with the infamous atrocity, where war photographer Joe Schofield – Stephen Campbell Moore answering the question “What would have happened if Marty McFly had become a battlefield paparazzo?” – captures the iconic moment on film. The image becomes indelibly etched into his mind, and when a Chinese friend hints that ‘Tank Man’ may be alive, the hunt to find him consumes Schofield’s life.
Said Chinese pal Zhang Lin – the exceptional Benedict Wong, fresh from playing Ai Weiwei at the Hampstead theatre – is haunted by that day too, but for different reasons memorably evoked with a touch of panache that you come to expect from a Headlong production.
This, though, is not directed by Headlong’s acclaimed outgoing Artistic Director Rupert Goold, who takes up his new post at the helm of the Almeida this month, but by Lyndsey Turner, who memorably brought acclaimed Oxford University drama Posh to the stage.
Turner takes hold of a production that could sprawl and confuse, instead ensuring it is as tight and lean as can be, keeping the action moving without driving so fast that nuance is lost. She’s aided by Es Devlin’s remarkable box of delights. The set designer has created a rotating cube that spins and alters to reveal a new setting each time like a theatrical Rubik’s cube.
All this would be mere augmentation if Kirkwood’s script was not so engaging, the central characters – which also include Claudie Blakley’s forthright analyst, Sean Gilder’s hardened hack and Trevor Cooper’s brilliantly sardonic editor – entirely believable and the story so very very compelling.
If Chimerica was a television series, it would be talked about in the same breath as Homeland, so taut and intelligent is the writing. Obviously it’s not. It’s on stage, and the inventiveness with which the production has been realised, from Carolyn Downing’s enlivening sound design and Finn Ross’ integral video work to Turner’s choreographed scene changes – not a moment is wasted – and a mesmeric central trio makes the show one of the most exciting productions currently playing in London.
Previous review of Almeida theatre premiere by Kate Stanbury, May 2013:
A co-production by Headlong and the Almeida, Chimerica’s compelling examination of one moment in history proves just as powerful as the nations comprising its title.
Spanning more than 20 years, Chimerica focuses on the iconic image of the Tank Man, the individual who confronted a convoy of Chinese tanks during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Several decades later, during the 2012 Presidential election, Joe, the photojournalist who captured the image on camera, embarks on a mission to find the photograph’s courageous hero; who exactly was that man and what was contained within those plastic bags?
Chimerica, a term used to describe the symbiotic relationship between China and the United States, explores not only the connection between the two countries and the resulting problems – pollution, censorship, Westernisation – faced by China, but the lives of the individuals living in both societies.
Es Devlin’s cube design captures the duality of the play’s title, combining scenes taking place in both countries through a cleverly devised box that rotates as video projections and photographs are cast on to its sides. At times, Devlin’s set even serves to reflect one of Chimerica’s recurrent themes – globalisation – as the box comes to present an amalgamation of the nation’s cultures.
While in the programme notes, playwright Lucy Kirkwood asserts that the photojournalist at the centre of Chimerica is purely a “fictional construct”, devoid of reference to any of the real journalists reporting on the event in 1989, Stephen Campbell Moore’s Joe seems vividly realistic, as the actor combines passionate ambition, good intentions and pounding persistence to portray the man who captured that fateful moment in Chinese history.
There are stand-out performances from many of the play’s cast members, in fact. Claudie Blakley provides a flawless performance as Tessa, endowing Joe’s love interest with a sharp tongue and dry wit that makes her character both likeable and witty, while Sean Gilder brings his own brand of humour as reporter Mel, likening his colleague to teen detective Nancy Drew. Equally, Benedict Wong steals his fair share of laughs as Joe’s beer-loving friend Lin, but beneath his amusing exterior is a man tormented by his past and the death of his pregnant wife, a story that proves to be vital in Joe’s quest for the Tank Man.
Drawing both humour and suspense from Kirkwood’s intricately constructed script, Lyndsey Turner proves herself once again as a force to be reckoned with following her recent Royal Court hits, striking a balance between fast-paced drama and lingering emotion as the truth about the events of 1989 are revealed.
It took the playwright an incredible six years to write this three hour play, but, resulting in an evening of captivating drama that you want never to end, those are years and hours well spent, both for Kirkwood and the Almeida audience.