Theatre review: Chimerica, Harold Pinter Theatre

Tank Man of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener

Tank Man of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener

Thousands of miles away from its epicentre, in a sitting room in Surrey, the events of Tiananmen Square would, if not change my life, certainly set me off on a path I’m still ambling along haphazardly today. It was while watching Kate Adie standing amongst protesters and rumbling tanks calming relaying the tumultuous events into people’s living rooms across the UK that inspired me to become a journalist, or, more specifically, a war correspondent.

Fourteen years later my journalism career has been far less dramatic and impressive than Adie’s bullet-strewn route, these days the most dangerous thing I have to navigate are the rails of expensive clothes as I carry my soup on my way from the office kitchen to my desk.

The events of June 1989 obviously changed far more than the career path of a 12 year-old girl in the Home Counties. It changed families’ lives overnight as hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protesters were shot dead by the People’s Army. It changed China’s future, as it shrugged off its economic isolation and began its journey to world domination, biting at the heels of the mighty USA in a bid to succeed it as the world’s next superpower.

This tug-of-war between East and West forms the backbone of Chimerica (it took me ages to get the title, duh), examining both personal and political relationships as the actions shifts, and sometimes overlaps, between Beijing and New York, swinging between 1989 and the present day.

The play opens on 3 June 1989 when ambitious young American photographer Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) is gifted a bird’s eye view of the moment Wang Weilin – widely believed to be his name – stepped in front of a tank as it trundled into Tiananmen Square to break up what had been a peaceful seven week protest. Joe made his name from the photograph (much like the real photographer Jeff Widener did), and flies back fourteen years later on another assignment to China where he is reunited with his old friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). On the flight he meets Tess (Claudie Blakley), a funny, straight talking British woman who works in analysing the Chinese consumer for Western businesses desperate for a share of the spending power of 1.2 billion Chinese.

Later, Joe and Zhang are drinking beer in the Chinese man’s tiny Beijing apartment. The two men rake over the still simmering coals of that day that changed both their lives for ever (Zhang’s wife was amongst the dead) and Zhang drops a bombshell – Tank Man wasn’t whisked off and shot as presumed, but is still alive. Joe, hungry for a story and with a genuine, if misguided, desire to find the truth, sets out to discover Tank Man’s whereabouts and in the process sparks the smouldering fire that will eventually rage out of his control and have far reaching consequences from Beijing to Queens.

Chimerica has been a huge hit, its success propelling it from the Almeida Theatre to the West End where, after a sell-out season, is due to end its run in a couple of weeks. The success of Lucy Kirkwood’s play isn’t surprising, it’s a brilliant piece of theatre that combines so much of what makes theatre great with a real contemporary, almost filmic, quality that elevates it beyond just another West End smash. For all its big themes and comments on government corruption and big business cover-ups Chimerica is funny – proper belly laugh funny too, not polite theatre-chuckling – heart-warming, heart-breaking, intelligent and genuine. The characters talk like real people; no one has one of those wine-glass throwing, finger pointing hysterical ephemeral arguments where no one can remember what the point was. The plot is riveting, proper edge-of-the-seat stuff, and complex in a way you rarely get on stage and it canters along without ever feeling rushed. I liked that Tess was recognisably English, not because she liked scones and tea, but because she said things like ‘I skipped down the road like some cunt in a musical’, quoted Spinal Tap and drank whiskey because she liked it not because she had A Drink Problem. Joe was a photojournalist who lived for the story, destroying everything in his path in search for the truth, but who wasn’t a villain, just a flawed man whose ambition was bigger than him. As we come to understand during Chimerica, heroes don’t always act heroically.

As in life there is no neat ending. The final scenes were hugely moving without being mawkish and Tess’s swelling belly gave us a tiny glimmer of hope for the future, even if this future is in a world where governments can control the weather and where the truth will always lose out to money and power.

by Suzanne Elliott 

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