Chimerica – Almeida Theatre – review by Carole Woddis.

China-western relationships are increasingly becoming all the rage in theatrical terms – hardly surprising since news headlines tell us day in day out about the rising tide of Sino economic influence.  Writers want to get in there and discover what’s going on behind the stereotype inscrutability. 

Lucy Kirkwood who wrote NSFW for the Royal Court last year, an icily bitter denunciation on male mags and where modern feminism has gone wrong, has now taken on the even larger geo-political conundrum which is contemporary Sino-US relations.

Chimerica is an extraordinary piece not least for the fact that it runs at over three hours – and that after it had 45 minutes lopped off it in preview.  Then again, we’ve got used in this flicker age to theatrical packages being all neatly tied up in a bow by the end of an hour, at the very most, two.  But Kirkwood, defying conventional wisdom and ranging between Bejing and New York sets out to examine not only the symbiotic nature of US-China relations but investigate obsession, in this case very particularly photo journalism.

`A photograph’, the Almeida programme reminds us in a Susan Sontag quote `is not an opinion.  Or is it?’

Images change lives.  No question.  As one character says in Chimerica, `Vietnam was lost in the sitting rooms of America’.  It was lost by the photo images sent back by the likes of Don McCullin and others.  Fast forward to 1989 where idealistic young American photo-journalist, Joe Schofield on assignment in Bejing covering human rights demos witnesses the moment of defiance when an activist stands before the rolling tanks holding nothing but a paper bag in his hands.

That image went round the world, and in Kirkwood’s fictional mystery-cum-historical coda, we see, twenty years later, Schofield returning to Bejing, encountering a Chinese friend equally as haunted by that moment as Schofield who becomes immersed in finding out what happened thereafter to tank-man.

Kirkwood’s dramatic linkages are sometimes spurious, subject to extremes of chance and fate.  For example, Joe, who just happens to be sitting next to a female marketing consultant – Tessa (Claudie Blakely of Lark Rise to Candleford fame) – on the plane to Bejing becomes vaguely, casually and then messily entangled with her in a way that allows Kirkwood to muse on contrasting life values (between Joe and Tessa), career as opposed to personal fulfilment, and not least, act as symbol for the vast western investment in marketing consultants hell bent on understanding the Chinese consumer  the better to exploit their commercial potential.

Joe and Tessa, Joe and his Chinese friend, Zhang Lin (the impressive Benedict Wong who recently played artist Ai Weiwei at Hampstead), and Joe and his editor (hard-nosed Frank played by Trevor Cooper, never better) are the major (but by no means only) storylines Kirkwood keeps juggling as she explores the peculiar attraction of opposites that exists between the US and China – at once admiring and hostile, needful and rejecting –  only allowing a quizzical denouement in the play’s final moments.

In the meantime, director Lyndsey Turner with Closing Olympics ceremony designer Es Devlin provide a stunning theatrical apparatus in which Kirkwood’s tale is told – a spinning box of compartments, splashed with images and projections and a cast who undertake myriad roles at the drop of a hat.  Hard to over-praise the precision and intensity of this Headlong production, one can only applaud its ambition, scale and determination to ask awkward questions even if its shape and form suffer sometimes from its very over-enthusiasm.  Still highly recommended.

Chimerica is at the Almeida to July 6

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Carole Woddis © May 31, 2013.