Re:View – ‘Chimerica’
Travelling up the escalator at Piccadilly Circus last night I was confronted by those annoying moving ads in which a girl in face paint mimes being an antelope, and marvelled that ‘The Lion King’ was still running, but it got worse when I had to pass ‘Stomp’, ‘Rock Of Ages’ and ‘The Mousetrap’ in quick succession, and it made me wonder when I had last seen great new writing in a big West End production.
Well, the large-scale transfer of ‘Chimerica’ scratched that itch, and judging by its popularity not everyone wants to sit through ‘We Will Rock You’, because on a rainswept Monday night it was SRO. And 29 year-old Lucy Kirkwood’s play deserves to be. Melding fact and fiction, it’s a dark, multi-layered three-hour meditation on the power-shift between America and China that rolls out like a top-notch thriller.
Stephen Campbell Moore plays Joe Schofield, a (fictional) American photographer, gets a tip-off that the main figure in his most popular image – the ‘Tank Man’, that young protester who stood before a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – might now be living in the US, and sets off to find him, sensing a story. To do this he uses his journalist team-mate, his editor and Zhang Lin, his contact in Beijing, who is holed up in his apartment suffering visions of his dead wife.
The action bounces from Beijing to New York as the committed Joe blindly pursues his quest, failing to foresee who he might hurt along the way. Meanwhile his English girlfriend is trying to sell a credit card company into China, describing the country as a place that “has gone from famine to Slim-Fast in one generation”. They’re ideological opposites, but neither can see that they might one day reverse their positions. Tackling this complex material through personal stories, Kirkwood manages to pack in a staggering number of memorable lines and much culture-clash wit, both Chinese/American and American/English, while still providing the satisfaction of a complex story told clearly.
The play covers a large number of big themes (one of which is how you get people to care about a single issue in an information-saturated world) , but a great many scenes stand out, from Joe’s market research girlfriend suffering a breakdown in a Powerpoint presentation to a re-enactment of what happened on the fateful day. Es Devlin’s revolving white cube of a set, opening to reveal scenes and projected upon to show Joe’s cropped photographs, is a brilliant device for representing the planet while suggesting media manipulation. The play transferred from fringe and continues to universal rave reviews, rightly so, and is made freshly topical by George Osbourne’s intent, in this week’s press, to ‘smooth the way’ for China’s rich, corrupt elite to buy into Britain. It’s by far the most satisfying play of the year.