Tiananmen Square, 1989. As tanks roll through Beijing and soldiers hammer on his hotel door, Joe – a young American photojournalist – captures a piece of history. But what does it mean? Anything? Nothing? Everything?
There’s not a lot that hasn’t already been said about Lucy Kirkwood’s glorious Chimerica, which is quite frankly dripping with (entirely warranted) stars. Home to the recently departed Merrily we Roll Along, the Harold Pinter theatre is rapidly attaining a reputation for hosting the cream of London’s transfers. However, I can not possibly hope for the exhilaration I felt upon leaving the theatre on this occasion to be matched. Technologically impressive (and dependent), Chimerica initially feels oddly placed in the ornate gold-leaved, sea-blue auditorium, and yet, tying us up in its questions and provocative images, we are immediately transported. The surroundings are rendered irrelevant.
By leading us one way and simultaneously opening our minds to an alternative direction, the play destabilises us, prodding at our previous convictions and opinions; why did I never look at it like that before? A refreshing perspective on journalism, we meet not goodies or baddies, but contributors to a story, humans doing their very best to survive in a dog-eat-dog world dominated by industrialisation and media and money. To what extent is any writer, journalist, photographer, protester, soldier ever acting altruistically, for the good of the people? Are we not always seeking some sort of reward, be it validation, approval or otherwise? The powerful writing made me feel inadequate for not previously asking the right questions; I’m not creative, intelligent or broad-minded enough to think as openly as the play eventually demands… I’m hopeful that this was an intended effect.
The play’s title, an amalgam of China and America (that also makes us think of the mythical two-headed Chimera), demonstrates the extent to which Chinese culture has not only influenced the western world, but has seeped into every state and city of the United States of America. Misunderstandings, misinterpretations and mistakes remind us that China and America, are in many ways, worlds apart, and yet subtle intrusions, a bowl of wasabi peas in a bar, hanzi on signs and in shop windows, serve as gentle (and not so gentle) reminders that these two powerful nations are influenced by each other and are not all that different after all. This never resonates more powerfully than during Tessa’s presentation in act 2. I don’t want to risk sounding like an HSBC commercial, but how naive and ignorant is it to suggest that China admires and helplessly emulates American and Western living when, conversely, for International businesses to succeed in China, they need to not operate in an American way, but must truly embrace what the Chinese value most dearly – their own culture.
It’s futile for me to reel off a plot synopsis, rave about Headlong or Lyndsey Turner’s provocative, intuitive direction. To dissect the theatrical elements – the impeccable acting, the staging, the use of photographs – would be to menial-ise the explosive, seminal impact of the play overall (and you’re more that capable of appreciating these things for yourself). Many reviews have discussed the televisual qualities of Kirkwood’s play, but this to me seems irrelevant. Quick and slicey as it is, Chimerica is a piece of theatre. Theatre is not defined by subject or style, but by its fleshy form. No film or TV can compete with the live, risky story-telling – the experience of witnessing actors, just a few feet away, as they wretch, scream, melt, emote, sweat and create. And this play is so very important because it demonstrates the capability of theatre to change minds, initiate debates and generate visceral reactions from even our supposedly ‘desensitised’ generation.
Chimerica has a strictly limited run in town, so go, and when you do, be prepared to challenge, confuse and kick yourself. As for cynics or non-believers, get ready to come face-to-face with the ever-expanding realm of theatrical possibility.