Chimerica (STC) – theatre review

Chimerica, is a three hour (plus interval) play of epic scale, written by Lucy Kirkwood, that premiered at the Almeida Theatre, in London, in 2013. The play is epic in length, epic in production values, epic in cast, and best of all, epic in ideas. On a virtually empty stage, with the action of a revolve stage, the production swirls into that space creating locations for some 39 scenes, that are, at different times, naturalistic, emblematic (Brechtian?), surreal. The flexible set design is by David Fleischer, the lighting design by Nick Schlieper, the composer and sound design by The Sweats. All contribute spectacularly, successfully, in creating the momentum and aesthetics of the play, giving the audience enough clue and space to endow the journey, both as a community and personally.

There is a cast of 12 professional actors, some playing multiple roles, and a support group of 20 student actors (unpaid, from NIDA Musical Theatre Course [this is their first term]) creating the dynamics of the characters and the impressive images for the director, Kip Williams’ vision, as well as, more prosaically, shifting the furniture and props. The huge Costume Design has been created by Renee Mulder. Kip Williams presents his usual penchant for stage images but also has taken much care with the text – the written word. Chimerica is an achievement, all round. Ms Kirkwood has structured a rumination on many contemporary social, cultural, political and economic issues around a basic who-where-is-he? mystery plot/quest and garnished it with a rom-com tension and a family tragedy.

Joe Schofield (Mark Leonard Winter), a photojournalist, happens to be in Beijing in the Chinese spring of 1989 during the protest/demonstration that occupied Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace), and observes the arrival of the Chinese Liberation Army with their tanks to disperse it, witnessing from his hotel room a lone man with white plastic bags of shopping, halting a procession of tanks and conversing with a soldier from the lead tank, and, was able, fortuitously, to take a photograph, which, when smuggled out of China and published in the West, becomes an iconic image of international fame.

Twenty-three years later. Who is Tank Man? What is his identity? Is it true that he now lives in New York? If so, where is he? If it is true, this is a great story. The plot of the play moves forward on Joe’s dogged search for Tank Man’s identity and whereabouts in the Chinese community of New York, and to publish a possible article – it will be a new career coup, for Joe, if it all transpires. The structure of the play takes us back in time and to Beijing, where we meet an acquaintance of Joe’s, a Chinese teacher of English, Zhang Lin (Jason Chong) and his family and neighbours and their travails. We also meet an English marketeer, Tessa Kendrick (Geraldine Hakewill), engaged in preparing others for interaction with the Chinese money-market opportunities. Too, the personalities of a 2012 New York in the world of Joe’s ‘hunt’, are revealed.

With great humour (there is a lot of wit going on – don’t go tired) aided by stock characterisations that allow knowing recognitions of character type and a short-cut to comedy: eg. whiplashed, morally perturbed reporter, Mel Stanwyck (Brent Hill); bullying, rapacious but kind-hearted Editor, Frank (Tony Cogin) – we get this newspaper world instantly, all, recognisable, in this instance, from the theatre haunts of the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play: The Front Page.

Ms Kirkwood has us ponder the morality of journalism; the ethics of photojournalism and the usages of those images; the economic diplomacy and consequences of the monetary interaction between the United States and China – one a ‘saver’ nation the other a ‘spender’ nation: Chimerica – a term coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick, of The Telegraph, to describe that dynamic; cultural contrasts and similarities; Chinese authoritarianism and market driven American arrogance; and the portent of Western hubris in regards to modern day China: the West vs the East.

Our ‘hero’ is Joe. We watch him in his ambitious pursuit of a scoop reveal his tawdry life in a reckless, ruthless, ethically corrupt chase for the ‘truth’, becoming more and more desperately selfish, self-absorbed, destroying, ignorantly, the lives of others in his quest. Zhang in disbelief to his friend Joe, having already suffered physical torture from Chinese officials: “You think an email from an American journalist does not get seen by censors? “TANK MAN” is the subject line, are you stupid or something?” We watch a chance meeting between Joe and a heavily pregnant Tessa, when he discovers his casual affair with her has huge consequences, at least for one of them. This man is a bankrupt human. An American narcissist (An American Psycho?) If this ordinary American man can cause such ignorant damage to the people in the world around him in pursuit of his personal ambitions – across personal and cultural boundaries – what can a man of real power compact? ¬†Sitting in the theatre one can only wonder how the new President’s knowledge of “China, China, China” will resonate on world finance and politics? What will he produce?

Mark Leonard Winter leads the burden of this play with fine stamina, Jason Chong, grows in stature as the play progresses, while Tony Cogin steals acting honours as the editor. Brent Hill, too, impresses, and both, Matthew Backer (back in form) and Monica Sayers are champions of multiple roles, delivering with pin point accuracies for each of their responsibilities, what is needed to draw, swiftly, character and forward propulsion for the plot. Anthony Brandon Wong, Jenny Wu, Charles Wu, Gabrielle Chan and Rebecca Massey are in good support. Geraldine Hakewill, in a pivotal role as Tessa, fails to nail her dialect (it wanders across the English speaking world – especially, across Australia) and distracts away from the clarity of the characterisation and function meted out by Ms Kirkwood – Tessa has some crucial information and observation – it gets, relatively, distractingly, lost.

Chimerica, is a terrific play, of a contemporary quality, rarely seen (or, it seems encouraged), on a Sydney (Australian stage). I loved reading the reaction to this very near-the-bone piece in the US of A. Like, Lucy Prebbles’, Enron, that dealt with the Goldman Sachs disaster, it has been dismissed as shallow and inaccurate, disparaging the play with a summary of it being ‘Hollywood fodder for snooty British progressives’. Chimerica and Enron won a swag of prizes in the British theatre world; while, on the other hand, Enron, closed on Broadway after only 12 performances and Chimerica, though seen in New York, was not on Broadway. (And, of course, those same Americans have elected Donald Trump.)

I encourage you all to go to see where you sit with Chimerica’s content. The three hours twenty minutes, in the theatre, whisked by in humour, provocation and contemplation.

Company: Sydney Theatre Company
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney
Dates: 28 February – 1 April 2017

You might also like: