Review: Chimerica, Almeida Theatre
Lucy Kirkwood might have written the first post-HBO-megaseries play. Chimerica goes toe-to-toe with a box set weekend – only it takes all of three hours. This is a play with the pulse of a natural born thriller and enough scope to blow the French Windows off any single room drama. Sure, one can pick holes: some of the characters are tropes and the conclusion is overly convenient, but that’s to neglect an utterly engrossing watch.
As a young photojournalist in 1989, Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) leaned out of a Beijing hotel room and snapped away. A line of four tanks came to a stop in front of a man carrying a plastic bag: the Tank Man. The shot became one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century. (Six photographers caught similar images. Kirkwood posits Joe as a fictional seventh.)
Twenty-three years later, all spent snapping war zones and humanitarian disasters, Joe gets a tip-off that the Tank Man – his Tank Man – is alive and well and living in America. Against the backdrop of the Democrat candidacy elections, Joe and his acerbic journalist colleague set off to track him down, swooping off to Beijing and back to chase leads.
The title comes from Niall Ferguson’s economic history The Ascent of Money; an amalgam of the twin superpowers that so dominate global affairs they effectively control them. Kirkwood shows the shifting scales: America is still straightjacketed by the 2008 crash; China has achieved 40 years of growth in a single decade.
It has, however, come at a cost. Beijing is suffocating in smog. Its citizens are stifled by the strictest of censorship. Joe’s friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), a local academic holed up in the tiny flat he’s had since his own student days, starts to prod at the system online. When he falls foul of the police, a CCTV camera springs up by his door. The only possible protest is offline, ephemeral and – much like his own role in occupying Tianamen Square – doomed to inconsequence.
Meanwhile, Claudie Blakley’s corporate consultant Tessa is offering advice to American firms trying to tap the Chinese market and its 1.3 billion potential customers. These consumers, she warns, don’t fit with Western equivalents. Firms that replicate their brand wholesale are doomed to fail. To benefit, one must understand the culture and, crucially, bend to it.
Kirkwood weaves these two subsidiaries into her primary narrative superbly and it is them, rather than Joe, that give us a real sense of contemporary China. However, it does remain a sort of China checklist. You’re dimly aware of all these things. Kirkwood extends them, embeds them in a wider context and occasionally, as during Zhang Lin’s torture, affords clinical facts with a stinging reality – all entirely admirable qualities, but nothing to really change your mind.
What gives Chimerica its real muscle is Kirkwood’s underlying thesis around photography. Moreover, it’s the second brilliant play in a single year to centre on a photojournalist – the other being Vivienne Franzmann’s The Witness. The Gate have just announced another, Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American early next year. I know of one major British playwright working on another.
Why, then, does this figure seem so insistent at the moment? The very fact of Chimerica as a play might contain the answer. It is, after all, a global play; one that probably relies on Google Earth and Google Images and is certainly received in a similar way. We are inundated by images and almost every inch of the earth is available to us as a result. That, in turn, leaves no room for claims of ignorance regarding any particular elsewhere. Inaction, therefore, becomes a positive action – just as it does for the photojournalist who is present by does not intervene in the momentary event. Any photo is proof of the photographer’s complicity – albeit by non-intervention rather than causation – in event documented.
There’s much, much more in Chimerica: the shift from war photographers to paparazzi; the concretisation of image into icon; the inherent subjectivity and subsequent malleability of photographs; even simply the question of affecting the world, action versus bearing witness, doing against watching.
The plot grips, the ideas engage and, for those that like it, there’s the semblance of political urgency to boot. Lyndsey Turner’s production does everything that’s asked of it with Ez Devlin’s rotating cube motoring the story forwards. So yeah. What more do you want?
Photograph: Johan Persson