In Beijing in 1989 Joe, a teenage freelance photographer, manages to snap a photo from a window above Tiananmen Square that becomes for the U.S. the iconic image of resistance -- a young man carrying two shopping bags defiantly stands in front of a tank. Here is an image of a classic American myth, the individual pitted heroically against the forces of oppression. But it that really what the picture depicts? Over twenty years later, the photographer, back in a now much-changed Beijing, hears that the "Tank Man" is still alive and becomes obsessed with finding him. In the process he rides roughshod over the lives of several innocent people. Joe is the Ugly American, ignorant of the very different mores of another culture -- China's. He is also a photographer who believes that pictures can change lives. However, the story behind "Tank Man" is very different from the one he wants to impose on it and the real hero may have been in the tank, not standing in front of it. Joe's Chinese friend who starts him on his obsessive hunt for tank man, turns out to have been a major character in the story behind the picture.
Lucy Kirkwood's CHIMERICA is a fascinating, complex story about reading and misreading a picture that, by the end of the play, is nothing more than an investment for a young Chinese entrepreneur who was not yet born at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre of student protesters. It might be more effective if it were a bit shorter (it is over three hours long), but it is constantly absorbing. It's a big play -- over twenty characters in dozens of short scenes. At times I wondered if Kirkwood had originally written it as a screenplay. Nonetheless, it really comes alive on stage.
I have reservations about Lyndsey Turner's production with its constantly revolving stage -- at least five minutes could be cut from the play by eliminating all the revolving from one scene to another. Like long blackouts in film, the revolve slowed down the pace of the narrative. More important, the production lacked a necessary sense of time and place. The play moves from 1989 to the present and across America during the 2012 presidential campaign, yet the production didn't specify where a scene was taking place. I would have preferred a speedier, simpler production. The large cast was excellent. Stephen Campbell Moore seems to specialize in playing nice looking men who are morally ambiguous. He has to carry much of this play and he does it effectively. Benedict Wong is touching as his heroic Chinese friend. Claudie Blakley, who is always good, brings out both the toughness and vulnerability of Tessa, a market researcher who learns hat there is such a thing as an individual and that Americans can't begin to understand China.
Yes, we're back to the mysterious East, but Kirkwood wants to draw the parallels between two very different cultures. CHIMERICA was one of very few new plays running in London this summer. It does what a good play should do -- it challenges our perceptions of appearances and our stereotypes of human behavior.
CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood. Almeida Theatre, London. June 26, 2013.